It’s tough to “like” Facebook news like this.
The social media giant came under fire from regulators and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, after it was revealed over the weekend that personal data from millions of users had been harvested to create voter profiles for a firm working with the Trump presidential campaign in 2016.
A firm called Cambridge Analytica reportedly gathered the information, using it to create psychological profiles and models to target voters. Cambridge Analytica allegedly scraped private information from 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge or permission.
As regulators in the U.S. and the European Union vowed to investigate, Facebook said Friday it suspended its relationship with Cambridge Analytica. Though it’s being referred to as a data breach, Facebook is pushing back, saying that the claim is “completely false”.
“Everyone involved gave their consent,” Facebook’s VP and Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said in a company news release. “People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.”
What’s a data breach?
The phrase refers to an unauthorized leaking or use of private user data. While Grewal said that this situation doesn’t technically qualify as a data breach, private information was accessed and used without its — or user’s — permission.
Many other tech companies have experienced data breaches over the past few years, including Yahoo, where potentially billions of users had their names, phone numbers, and email addresses stolen starting in 2013.
In this case, an academic named Aleksander Kogan at Cambridge University, in England, created an app to take data from Facebook users without Facebook’s consent.
Kogan, through a company called Global Science Research, reportedly created an app, called “thisisyourdigitallife”, which asked users to answer personality questions purportedly for academic use, while scraping personal information from their profiles.
Global Science then used this information to build voter profiles. Millions of Facebook users reportedly input their information, which Global Science then shared with Cambridge Analytica.
What is Cambridge Analytica, and what does it do?
Cambridge Analytica was founded in 2013 as a data mining and analysis company, with funding from the Mercer family, who also back Breitbart News. It uses the data it collects to target specific parts of the population, mostly for marketers and political campaigns.
The data firm worked with the Trump campaign in 2016, along with a Super PAC, to provide data analysis.
Fifty million Facebook users, for starters, which is a fraction of its approximately 2 billion users.
Nevertheless, concern about weaknesses in Facebook’s privacy controls reportedly caused the company’s stock to drop on Monday morning. Facebook’s problems also prompted a stock market sell-off later in the day.
Facebook said in its press release that it’s investigating how Cambridge used customer information, and that it would take legal action if it found any unlawful activity.
Facebook’s ongoing privacy struggles
This isn’t the first time Facebook has come under scrutiny for potential weaknesses in how it secures user data.
In 2013, the company said that data for 6 million users had been vulnerable to download by unauthorized parties over the course of a year-long breach.
Why should it matter to you?
Most U.S. consumers use Facebook — 68% of adults, according to Pew Research Center, and more than two-thirds of the population actively maintaining profiles.
Big tech companies such as Facebook and Google are free to use, but in exchange, they make money by trading and selling data about users to advertisers and marketing companies. The data is valuable, which makes it a target for hackers, as well as companies such as Cambridge Analytica.