Cat on Facebook

India and Israel open Facebook probes amid anger over data harvesting

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As the UK data protection regulator investigates data analytics company Cambridge Analytica [CA]’s collection of Facebook user data for targeted political advertising, the Indian and Israeli governments have announced that they will also be investigating potential data harvesting.

This follows an explosive investigative report by Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer, who uncovered an operation to harvest the data of more than 50 million Facebook users without their consent in order for CA to develop tools to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In early 2014, hundreds of thousands of Facebook users were paid to take a personality test via an app, thisisyourdigitallife, and consented to share their own data for academic use. The app was used to harvest data from these users’ Facebook friends without their knowledge or consent. This information, which revealed users’ ‘Likes’, was used as the basis for algorithms to predict and influence voting behaviour of Facebook users via micro-targeted advertising based on their psychological profiles.

According to lead whistleblower Chrostopher Wylie, who helped establish Cambridge Analytica: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles and built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company [CA] was built on.”

According to reports, Facebook had known about CA’s mass data harvesting since 2015, but only blocked the company from its platform in recent weeks.

Further reports have connected CA to the Brexit campaign; a whistleblower has said that a digital services company connected to CA was paid £625,000 by BeLeave, a pro-Brexit campaign group targeted at young liberal voters and funded by the official Vote Leave campaign. This could be a violation of campaign spending rules; if the two groups co-operated during the run-up to the referendum, they would have been required to share a campaign spending cap.

A backlash against Facebook that has grown since Cadwalladr’s initial report has led to $60bn (£42bn) being wiped off the company’s value and the appearance of a movement encouraging users to delete their accounts (‘#deletefacebook’). WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton – who was made a billionaire when Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 – has said that “it is time” to move away from Facebook, while SpaceX and Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk has deleted the companies’ Facebook pages in response to the campaign.

This weekend, Facebook paid for full-page ads in all leading UK and US newspapers, apologising for the incident and admitting that “we expect there are others”. The apology was signed by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and CEO.

Damien Collins MP, the Conservative chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has formally requested that Zuckerberg appears before MPs to explain how companies may have acquired information about Facebook users and whether data may have been acquired non-consensually. According to Collins, Zuckerberg’s colleagues’ previous responses “have consistently understated this risk and have been misleading to the committee”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office [ICO] – the UK data protection watchdog – completed a seven-hour search of CA’s London offices on Friday night, following days of waiting. The ICO will be conducting its own investigation into the incident.

“We will now need to assess and consider the evidence before deciding the next step and coming to any conclusions,” a spokesperson for the ICO said in a statement on Saturday. “This is one part of a larger investigation by the ICO into the use of personal data and analytics by political campaigns, parties, social media companies and other commercial actors.”

In the US, Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey has announced an investigation into the incident, and leading Democrat Representative Adam Schiff has called for CA to be “thoroughly investigated”.

Meanwhile, the governments of India and Israel have announced that they will be conducting probes relating to improperly harvested data belonging to Facebook users.

Following reports that Indian political parties have used CA during previous elections, India’s ministry of information technology has set a deadline of March 31 2018 for CA to answer a series of questions about whether it was involved with harvesting personal data of Indian citizens using Facebook. The ministry is concerned that CA may have been used this personal data to micro-target voters based on their psychological profiles, as it appears to have done for the Trump campaign.

“The fairness of Indian democracy and electoral process is a matter of pride and any attempt to influence the sanctity of the electoral franchise through dubious and questionable means is unacceptable,” the ministry stated.

Israel’s Authority for Protection of Privacy announced last week that it would be investigating Facebook in order to find whether “personal data of Israeli citizens was illegally used in a way that infringes upon their right to privacy and the provisions of the Israeli Privacy Law”.

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