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Facebook is in trouble: a quick summary

By Alvin Soon - on 24 Mar 2018, 7:47am

Facebook is in trouble

Facebook is in trouble and the details are like a relationship update: complicated.

This wasn’t a data breach

The gist of it is that in 2014, a researcher named Aleksandr Kogan developed a personality quiz app for Facebook. About 270,000 users from the United States installed Kogan’s app and consented to have their personal data harvested.

But the app also amassed the personal data of these users’ friends, none of whom consented to do so. As Facebook executives insisted, this wasn’t a security breach. Facebook allowed its third-party developers to scrap friends of friends’ data (it’s since disabled this function). The app ultimately reaped data from about 50 million Facebook users.

Kogan saved this data to a private database. He then provided this data to data-mining company Cambridge Analytica. This is the part that breaks Facebook rules, a third-party app could scrape personal data from Facebook but could not provide it to an outside party. Cambridge Analytica supposedly used this personal data to create psychological profiles about US voters, for use in the 2016 presidential elections.

Facebook knew about this in 2015

Facebook says that it was aware of Kogan’s private database in 2015, and asked that the data be deleted. But Facebook wasn’t rigorous about enforcing the deletion and it stayed intact. The New York Times says it’s seen copies of the data.

Reports about how Cambridge Analytica might have used Facebook to influence the election surfaced in early 2017. But the latest revelations shed light on how early Facebook knew about the data harvesting. Then failed to inform its users or do much about it.

Secret data harvesting may have been routine

Sandy Parakilas was a platform operations manager at Facebook, who was responsible for finding data breaches by app developers. Parakilas has told The Guardian that secret data harvesting operations were likely routine.

In the wake of all this, it turns out that Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, might be leaving the company. Apparently, Stamos veered on the side of revealing more about how Facebook was abused by foreign parties for disinformation campaigns, but was overruled at the top.

Facebook stock has plunged, governments are calling for investigations

Facebook’s stock has plunged in the past few days, the steepest fall since 2015. Governments around the world have called for hearings and investigations. Ever since news broke about Facebook’s role in amplifying fake news, there’s been talk about regulating the company. Now this talk is picking up steam. Regulation may be what worries Facebook the most, as it would curtail the company’s autonomy.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t addressed the latest fallout. Instead, he’s been conspicuously absent in the past week.

This is Facebook working as it was designed to do

That’s a lot to take in, and this is already the simplified version. But if there’s one key takeaway it’s this. It’s disturbing how easily Facebook made it to scrap users’ personal data without consent. But it’s crucial to understand that this was exactly what Facebook was designed to do — profit from harvesting personal data.