WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Allegations that Facebook allowed a data-mining firm, Cambridge Analytica to improperly collect information on at least 50 million unsuspecting users during the 2016 election has set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill.
In the past week, a whistleblower came forward to claim that the firm he helped build, Cambridge Analytica, gleaned data from millions of Facebook users to develop "psychographic" profiles to be used to influence U.S. voters. Facebook is accused of knowing about the vast data-mining operation since 2015, but staying quiet about the alleged privacy abuses until this past weekend and doing nothing to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Now lawmakers are demanding Facebook account for its alleged abuse of users' privacy and Cambridge Analytica come clean about their questionable and highly sophisticated electioneering tactics aimed at predicting and ultimately changing voters' behavior.
"Cambridge Analytica and Facebook both ought to be subpoenaed to testify—and their documents—in public, under oath," Senate intelligence committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. said Tuesday.
The intelligence committee has already requested a representative from Cambridge Analytica appear before the committee to answer questions about 2016 election interference, according to committee vice chairman Mark Warner, D-Va. The firm has denied the request. The committee has also called on the CEOs of the big tech firms, particularly Facebook and Twitter to testify, but with no success.
"Those companies who depend upon Americans' trust, their leadership owes not just the Congress, but more importantly they owe the users of these services a full explanation," Warner told reporters.
On Monday, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, demanding a hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to account for the latest incident of alleged privacy abuses by the social media giant.
News: @SenJohnKennedy & I just sent bipartisan letter to @ChuckGrassley asking for judiciary hearing w/social media CEOs including Zuckerberg. This isn’t the first time we’ve made this request, but now 50 million people who had their records stolen should add to our numbers!— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) March 19, 2018
Sen. Grassley told reporters on Tuesday that he has not yet scheduled the hearing, but is taking the matter under advisement. "It's very serious with what Facebook has done and it violates privacy," the chairman said. "We ought to be looking into it."
In recent months, lawmakers have called the major social media companies to testify on the spread of false information and the abuse of those platforms to influence the 2016 election. The issues surrounding Cambridge Analytica appear to go deeper.
The data firm was founded in 2013 as the American arm of the Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL), a London-based company specializing in understanding and predicting human behavior. In order to legally operate on U.S. political campaigns, Cambridge Analytics was co-chaired by Steve Bannon, who would become Donald Trump's chief strategist, and was largely funded by Robert Mercer, a conservative megadonor and technologist.
According to reports, Cambridge Analytica struck up a partnership with a University of Cambridge-based academic, Aleksandr Kogan, who was able to provide the firm with a trove of Facebook data gathered through a personality quiz application, "thisisyourdigitallife."
In a statement published over the weekend, Facebook vice president Paul Grewal explained that they allowed Kogan to set up the app because the researcher claimed it was solely for academic purposes. Grewal said the company found out in 2015 that Kogan "lied" and was passing user data to SCL and Cambridge Analytica, in violation of Facebook policies. Kogan was suspended from Facebook at that time.
Facebook did not move to suspend Cambridge Analytica or its parent company SCL until Friday, March 16. The company said it has since addressed the security problems and set up an App Review process. It is not clear how effective the review will be in preventing individuals from exploiting user data in the future.
"I'm gravely concerned that Facebook knew of security problems their users were exposed to and simply refused to fix them," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said of the company's behavior over the two years it knew about Cambridge Analytica.
On Monday, Wyden sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg demanding answers on Facebook's relationship with Cambridge Analytica. The senator gave Zuckerberg until April 13 to respond to the letter which also included a request for information on the company's prior data policy violations and an overall privacy assessment.
"We're going to make sure there weren't a whole array of additional violations beyond what we appear to know about [Cambridge Analytica]," Wyden told reporters Tuesday.
According to former Facebook operations manager, Sandy Parakilas, Cambridge Analytica was not an outlier. In an interview with The Guardian, Parakilas estimates that "a majority of Facebook users" could have had their information harvested by app developers, like Kogan. Up until 2014, the company offered developers the ability to pay for a feature called "friends permission." A developer only required permission from one profile, but could then access information from that person's entire friend network.
After the data left Facebook servers, "there was not any control, and there was no insight into what was going on," Parakilas said, adding that Facebook management discouraged him from trying to figure that out.
While Facebook claims Kogan's app only affected 270,000 users, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie, said that estimate fundamentally misunderstands what the application actually did.
Kogan's quiz app was downloaded with the consent of the user who was then asked to respond to a series of questions. Wylie explained in a recent interview with Britain's Channel 4 News, "I don't just capture what your responses are, I capture all of the information about you from Facebook, but also, this app then crawls through your social network and captures all of that data also."
On average, for every one user who voluntarily downloaded the app, Cambridge Analytica was capturing 300 additional records. "We were able to get upwards of 50 million-plus Facebook records in the span of a couple months," Wylie said.
Users who did not opt in to strict privacy settings were having their data collected and then sold to Cambridge Analytica without their knowledge.
The way that information was potentially used is also causing concern, particularly after the CEO and founder of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, was caught on tape boasting of using tactics including bribery and false information spread through the internet to help political campaigns around the world. Nix was suspended from Cambridge Analytica on Tuesday.
The former CEO has also been asked by Democrats on the House intelligence committee to testify on the developments, though Republicans are reluctant to bring him in. Nix spoke to the committee last year via video conference.
However, Nix's former associate, Christopher Wylie, has agreed to speak to lawmakers. Aleksandr Kogan has also said he will testify before Congress about his role in funneling to Cambridge Analytica.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said his concerns extend beyond Cambridge Analytica, which is why he signed the letter urging Chairman Grassley to bring Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I'd like to talk about the bargain that we all seem to have struck with Facebook. We get free access, what do they get?" Kennedy asked. "Facebook is constantly pushing the envelope on data-mining and I think we need to talk about that."
Kennedy further stressed that he would like to understand whether users' data is being used to manipulate their perspective, specifically, "what extent if any are those of us on Facebook seeing a reality that's contrived by Facebook and its algorithms—to what extent are we Truman in 'The Truman Show?'"
Although it is not fully clear how Facebook users' data was repurposed by Cambridge Analytica, the potential uses of personal digital information are vast, lucrative and a concern for privacy advocates.
"The problem is, the data that Facebook has is very, very valuable, and yet the protections they have in place don't match the value of what they're trying to protect," explained Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU's Speech Privacy and Technology Project.
The company also has a greater incentive to sell and share data than keep it under lock and key. That is why Facebook has resisted calls in the past to strengthen privacy protections and limit sharing users' data, Stanley noted. For that reason, the privacy breach that took place with Cambridge Analytica was "inevitable," he added.
"At the end of the day, what is needed are some good privacy rules in place," Stanley stressed, pointing to the European Union's guidelines regulating how citizens' information is collected, stored and shared by private companies.
The issue of how and whether user information is protected is increasingly important in an era of big data and psychographics. Research has already demonstrated how, with the help of machine learning and artificial intelligence, it is possible to learn a shocking amount about a person based on only a limited amount of data.
In 2015, researchers at Cambridge and Stanford University reached the conclusion that your computer knows more about you than your closest friends. The study found that a computer, using digital footprints, made more accurate and valid judgments about people's personalities than those made by friends, family, spouses or colleagues.
There is still some skepticism about how effectively that information can be used to influence human behavior, it has obviously piqued the interest of everyone from advertisers and politicians to military strategists and financiers.