Beyond exposing how the political campaigns of President Donald Trump and others exploited Facebook user data for political advertising, the ongoing Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal surrounding the social network has been a rude awakening for those learning just how much data and personal information Facebook has gathered over the years.
Earlier this month, the New York Times and The Guardian reported that British data firm Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal information of about 50 million Facebook users to tailor political online advertising based on an individual’s personality and political leanings.
The firm, which primarily worked for conservative campaigns like those of Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016, obtained the data from Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who designed a personality survey that some 270,000 users took in 2014.
Those users consented to having their data harvested for academic purposes as well as that of the friends in their social network – which helped the pool of user data grow to roughly 50 million Facebook profiles.
In what Facebook calls a clear violation of its privacy policies, Kogan sold that data to Cambridge Analytica, instead of using it for purely scholarly reasons.
Facebook reacted to the scandal by suspending the accounts of Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group, the firm’s parent company, but many have criticized Facebook for not notifying its users – or the general public – when it learned of the data breach in 2015.
Since the scandal hit newsstands, it’s come to light that Facebook kept phone and message logs of some Android users and even videos never published by users.
The Federal Trade Commission confirmed Monday it was investigating whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree ensuring users’ privacy. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress.
And local prosecutors are getting in on the action. On Friday, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx filed a lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica, SCL Group and Facebook, alleging the firm violated state fraud laws and the platform did nothing to stop it.
The lawsuit says Facebook “is not a social media company; it is the largest data mining operation in existence.”
How can users of not only Facebook, but all sorts of online platforms, keep their data safe?
Joining us to offer his perspective on the Facebook-Cambridge debacle and the questions it raises is computer science professor Ben Zhao from the University of Chicago.
Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia