After a 16-month-long probe, the United States Government has imposed a $5 billion fine on Facebook for its involvement with Cambridge Analytica.
The American social media and social networking service company was sanctioned over privacy mishaps. According to the U.S. government, Facebook had repeatedly misled its 2.2 billion users.
The U.S Federal Trade Commission (FTC) argued that the social-networking company was not upfront about the ways app developers, advertisers, and others gained access to users’ personal data — from the content they “liked” to the phone numbers they stored. This, according to the Commission, is a breach of Facebook’s previous promise to improve its privacy protections online.
“Despite repeated promises to its billions of users worldwide that they could control how their personal information is shared, Facebook undermined consumers’ choices,” FTC Chairman, Joe Simons said in a statement.
How Facebook breached users’ privacy: Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, and used them to build a powerful software programme to predict and influence choices during the election about four years ago.
The Cambridge Analytica headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser, Steve Bannon, was said to have used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voter, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.
Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, was quoted to have said, “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 the entire company was built on.”
Documents seen and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015, the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time, it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.
The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company, Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.
The app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it from being sold on or used for advertising. The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raised concerns about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the last US Presidential Election.