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Opinions: Facebook subverted democracy

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal has put billions of Facebook users into deep concern on the issues of data privacy and security, given the enormous potential that lies in the data, and given that they are living in the so called Data-era wherein everything from a company’s Business model to data-hungry ML algorithms used in variety of fields from predictive analyses to deep learning techniques depends on user data sets and patterns as raw input to bring out commercially remunerative outcomes for businesses and a personalised experience for the users. Let’s have a brief recap of the scandal that took a major share of the news for the past month, caused Facebook’s stock to plummet and its CEO to face a two day long testimony before the US senators.

Aleksandr Kogan, a social psychologist working as a lecturer at Cambridge University developed a Facebook app, which according to the University’s statement on the matter was initially created for academic research but was later repurposed for use by Global Science Research (GSR), Kogan’s commercial enterprise established in 2014. In the process, it was rebranded and released with updated terms and conditions stating that it was commercial and not academic and that clearly stated that users were granting Kogan the right to sell and license the data. The app was used by 270,000 Facebook users. It included a survey and collected information based on users’ residential cities and likes so as to generate a psychological profile for every user. The same information was collected for users’ friends without informing them which amounted the app to harvest data of as many as 87m users. Back then, this was a core feature of the Facebook platform called ‘friends’ permission’ which allowed the developers to access their app user’s friends’ information if the user allows them to do so without asking or informing the concerned! Shady, isn’t it? Kogan gave away this data to his company’s client Cambridge Analytica – a political consulting firm that worked for Trump’s presidential campaign. It is speculated that CA used the same data to influence the users through political advertisements on Facebook based on their psychographics and demographics- gender, age, race.

It was totally justified on Kogan’s part to use the data, given that he declared in the updated app that the data collected would be used for commercial purpose. Moreover, the users signed in to the app with their Facebook account at their own will and allowed the app to access their friends’ data by giving their consent. The blame goes to Facebook for housing the feature. Facebook did shut down the friend’s data API in April 2015, but there was no way to monitor or control the data that has been harvested until then.

Sandy Parakilas, the then manager in charge of data protection at Facebook, said that he even brought this to the attention of higher authorities but no action was taken as they prioritized growth in the number of user and data collection, and their advertising ventures over data privacy issues. Only one case of data misuse has come out, it is not known how other developers might have used their data warehouse. Facebook has clearly subverted democracy, as accused by the US congress, by leaking public data. They could have in the first place brought out the data scandal in public back in 2015, when they got word of it, rather than asking Cambridge Analytica to delete the data and recklessly taking their word for it.

Zuckerberg had apologised to the people and the senators for the same but clearly it won’t suffice. Since what is done cannot be undone, Facebook needs to have a stringent data privacy policy and a restricted and well monitored developer access so as to abstain the developers of taking undue advantage of users’ data. Facebook has come up with a quite a few solutions to combat the issue and investigations are on to bring out the minutiae of the leak. Let’s wait and watch as the world expects further revelations.

The opinions expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Copperpod IP, Carthaginian Ventures or any other related entity.

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