Cambridge Analytica – Offices Raided and People Testify

As the Cambridge Analytica story works its way through the news cycle, it seems that the drama is only intensifying.

When companies lose personal information to hackers, the response is typically muted. Sometimes, companies get called to government hearings to answer questions. Other times, they may get a lawsuit years later as was the case with Experian. Most of the time, it seems they just get a wrap on the wrist and get told “don’t do that again” and the issue gets swept under the rug.

So to say that the response Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is unusual is an understatement. Earlier, we reported on the controversy, pointing out that there really isn’t any evidence to say that this is a data breach or leak. Instead, what this appears to be is the use of data mining techniques that some users consented to when they downloaded a personality quiz app. Other information may have been gathered on other users through what may have been publicly posted. In short, when you sign up for Facebook, and especially for the app service in question, this is what you sign up for.

For years, Facebook partners and app developers have been able to scoop up personal information and sell it for marketing purposes. Most users either didn’t know about the activity or simply cast questions around privacy, justifying it by saying that “my information isn’t that important”. As such, the privacy implications of simply using Facebook have remained largely unchecked because of a culture of apathy towards privacy.

Now, it seems, people are suddenly beginning to realize the implications of being on a website with heavy surveillance. With companies being able to sway elections through psychological profiling, targeted advertising, and general persuasion, it seems that some people are beginning to realize the problem with all of this.

Whether it is the fact that it is happening on Facebook, the fact that it is affecting electoral process, the fact that there is an overall lack pf privacy, or a combination of all three, it seems the reaction to all of this is quite dramatic. As Quartz pointed out, there is a Delete Facebook campaign spreading throughout Twitter. Of course, that campaign as drawn criticism because simply deleting your profile will not make Facebook remove all of your data. The only effect that has is that Facebook can’t get new information about you directly from you.

The campaign took a naive turn when some people proclaimed that they are getting out of Facebook to teach Mark Zuckerberg a lesson by jumping ship to Instagram. The punchline being that Zuckerberg also owns Instagram and that Instagram also harvests your personal information with the same technology Facebook uses. If you do something on Instagram, Facebook is going to know anyway.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica, the company at the centre of all of this, is facing a lot of tough questions. In fact, UK authorities even went so far as to raid their headquarters. From Politico:

“This is just one part of a larger investigation into the use of personal data and analytics for political purposes,” the Information Commissioner’s Office said late Friday after receiving the warrant. “As you will expect, we will now need to collect, assess and consider the evidence before coming to any conclusions.”

The search is the latest development in a ballooning scandal enveloping both the firm and Facebook. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic are scrutinizing the companies amid accusations that Cambridge Analytica may have used 50 million Facebook users’ data without proper consent to help U.S. President Donald Trump’s election.

Both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook deny they did anything illegal.

On Friday, Cambridge Analytica’s acting CEO Alexander Tayler defended the firm, saying, “We in no way resemble the politically motivated and unethical company that some have sought to portray.”

Tayler insisted Cambridge Analytica “immediately” deleted raw user data after Facebook first raised concerns that it had been obtained outside of Facebook’s terms of service.

Chris Wylie, in the mean time, is testifying to a UK parliamentary committee, going as far as to say the activities of companies of Cambridge Analytica changed the outcome of the Brexit vote. He went even further to implicate another company as well: AggregateIQ (AIQ). The company is alleged to have created the software used by Cambridge Analytica.

The comments sparked further backlash where the NDP is now calling for the company to testify before a Canadian committee to answer questions about their involvement in all of this. From the CBC:

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus urged the standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics to call Jeff Silvester of AggregateIQ (AIQ) to testify — and to subpoena him, if necessary.

“I am concerned, and I just want to put it on the record for my colleagues to think of that right now,” Angus told the committee Tuesday morning.

“In the United Kingdom, the question of whether the Facebook platform was used illegally to undermine the Brexit vote and possibly change the Brexit vote has a direct Canadian link to Jeff Silvester and the work that AIQ did.

“It would well be in the mandate of our committee to call Mr. Silvester to testify because of the power of these third party operators to misuse personal data.”

Facebook, of course, is not being spared from the political backlash in all of this. Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission confirmed that it is also investigating the matter to determine what, if any, wrongdoing has occurred. As we reported earlier, the US congress is calling on Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions before committee as well. Additionally, they want Google and Twitter to testify on their practices as well. From the Washington Post:

A panel of Senate lawmakers aims to grill the top executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter next month, the latest indication that the controversy surrounding Facebook’s data privacy practices now threatens to envelop the whole of Silicon Valley.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), on Monday scheduled an April 10 hearing on the “future of data privacy and social media” — and the panel said it would explore potential new “rules of the road” for those companies.

It’s the third such request that lawmakers have made of Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg to testify since it emerged earlier this month that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm hired by President Trump during the 2016 campaign, may have improperly accessed names, “likes” and other personal information from at least 30 million Facebook users.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing spells the first time that congressional lawmakers have expanded their scrutiny to include Zuckerberg’s peers, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The result could be a hearing that exposes both of those tech giants – whose data is not known to have been taken by Cambridge Analytica – to uncomfortable questions about the extent to which they profit from their users’ most personal data, too.

As many have already pointed out, Facebook’s stock is taking a pounding ever since the story broke. On March 16, the stock was valued at 185.09. As of March 27, the stock dropped to 151.88. This represents a drop of about 33.21 points or about 28%. This happened over the course of 11 days.

Some are wondering if Facebook is going to survive all of this. At this point, it is way too early to tell. One thing Facebook has going for it is an overwhelming stranglehold on the social media market. Some people are hopelessly addicted to the site to begin with as well. In addition, there is a lot of money behind Facebook at the moment even if they are losing a fair amount now. So, it is not as though the site is in any sort of weak position by any means.

As for whether or not this will bring a whole new level of awareness for privacy, that isn’t looking good at this point. While there are efforts to put other companies under the microscope, we’re not seeing a whole lot of that at this stage. The controversy seems to almost exclusively wrap around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and any a few related companies at this stage. We certainly aren’t seeing any backlash spread to the privacy controversy surrounding Windows 10 for instance.

At this stage, we can only keep monitoring this fast developing story to see who it develops.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.


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