Facebook battles an intense media storm over data protection

by Shane Dillon

It’s said that a week is a long time in politics. Spare a thought, then, for Facebook, which is currently deep in the midst of a weekus horribilis (with apologies to Latin teachers).

A half week of high drama so far sees, at the time of going to print, the tech titan mired in a blazing cross-Atlantic row as one of two firms at the heart of a major political row.

Angry lawmakers in America and Britain are calling for Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg to explain, frankly, what the hell it’s been doing to safeguard user data.

The calls are in light of the explosive whistleblower and undercover reporting revelations that allege another firm – Cambridge Analytica – took user data sourced from Facebook without users’ knowledge to, among other things, help strategically promote a certain orange-faced leader, manipulating millions of American voters in the process.

It’s hard to trump the seriousness of the claims, which came to light as the results of an undercover Channel 4 investigation into Cambridge Analytica’s alleged activities.

In essence, the claims about Cambridge Analytica suggested that by using data sourced from a relatively small source pool of users who agreed to provide some profile data at an externally developed app – which included users’ linked contacts to further mine additional data – it was possible to profile and exponentially target millions of potential voters during the Trump presidential run, using data sourced from millions of users.

Even more damningly, it was suggested that not only could the user data be used to target key areas, voting blocks, core demographics and other strategic elements without users’ knowledge or consent, but that this could all be done invisibly, quietly, and without leaving a trace.

In light of President Trump’s victory – whereby Hillary Clinton received almost two million more votes from Joe Public, but the quirks of America’s electoral college system handed him the presidency – the machinations of a firm using ‘dark data’ sourced from Facebook to potentially manipulate millions of voters, as suggested, has been the most dramatic tech story of the year so far, by far.

The political consultancy firm has moved swiftly to distance itself from the alleged actions, with its board suspending its chief executive, Alexander Nix, by the time of going to print.
Nix was captured on film discussing all kinds of tricks and tactics that he said the company could use to spread data and otherwise use the info it’d mined from Facebook user data – charges that the company itself robustly denies.

However, significant damage has already been done by the claims, with academics, politicians, watchdogs, regulators, analysts, partners and all kinds of interests now caught up in the twin tornados currently swirling around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook alike in an intense media storm.

At the time of going to print, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has been uncharacteristically quiet about the rapidly unfolding drama, with assorted financial reports suggesting that Facebook’s worth has taken a 10% tumble – worth some $50 billion – as the Cambridge Analytica story has unfolded.

It’s a fascinating story that’s dominating news cycles this week, and with mounting unease over the power of social media platforms – which still, as a rule, regard themselves as mere conduits for users‘ content, while watchdogs and governments increasingly regard them as accountable publishers instead – there’s a lot at stake.

At the very least, many people are likely to pause when faced with all kinds of apps and services asking them to agree to share their user data (age, location, contacts, etc) before proceeding, lest that simple tick has complex consequences, intended or otherwise…

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