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Mark Zuckerberg spent two days on Capitol Hill seeking to placate angry lawmakers by saying he would be open to some sort of regulation to protect the privacy of users on his global social-media platform.  The hearings are the result of revelations last month that a company called Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of 50 million Facebook profiles.  This information was allegedly used to map out voter behavior in 2016 for both the Brexit campaign and the US presidential election.

Cambridge Analytica is a British company that helps businesses “change audience behavior”.  Back in 2015, a Cambridge psychology professor called Aleksandr Kogan built an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” and Kogan’s company Global Science Research had a deal to share info from the app with Cambridge Analytica.  The app was a personality quiz that asked Facebook users for information about themselves and an estimated 270,000 Facebook users signed up and took personality tests.  The app collected the information of each user’s Facebook friends, who had not provided consent.

The company used the data to build psychological profiles of 87 million Facebook users in order to tailor ads that could sway their political views.  Since the breach was revealed Facebook has stated that Kogan’s app picked up information in “a legitimate way” but that their rules were violated when the data was sold on to Cambridge Analytica.  Around the same time the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, news that Facebook has been collecting and storing call records and SMS data from Android devices for years.

Facebook has been requesting access to contacts, SMS data, and call history on Android devices to improve its friend recommendation algorithm and distinguish between business contacts and  personal friendships. Facebook appears to be gathering this data through its Messenger application, which often prompts Android users to take over as the default SMS client. Facebook has, at least recently, been offering an opt-in prompt that prods users with a big blue button to “continuously upload” contact data, including call and text history. It’s not clear when this prompt started appearing in relation to the historical data gathering,

The hearings were held to determine whether Washington will create regulations that address increasingly widespread concerns about digital privacy.  During Mr. Zuckerberg’s two days of testimony, he repeatedly said that he had learned the lesson of the recent data-breach scandals, saying he thought it was inevitable that there will need to be some regulation but warned that poor regulations could leads to unintended consequences.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, House Commerce Chairman Greg Walden described it as “a wake-up call for Silicon Valley and the tech community that if you let these things get out of hand, having grown up in a very lightly regulated environment, you could end up with a lot more regulation than you seek.”  “I don’t want to rush into regulation minutes after having the first hearing of this magnitude. But certainly if they can’t clean up their act, we’ll clean it up for them.” ​He said lawmakers would consider calling other tech CEOs.

 

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