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Facebook data misuse scandal sparks calls for greater privacy

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Whistleblower Christopher Wylie speaks at a protest opposite Parliament in London on March 29, 2018.
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie speaks at a protest opposite Parliament in London on March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Trust in social media has hit a new low, following revelations that data of fifty million Facebook users, ended up in the hands of a UK data analysis company, and may have been used to influence Donald Trump's 2016 election and Brexit. Facebook this week announced new measures to protect users' privacy. The scandal has highlighted the challenge facing tech firms in ensuring personal information is not used for profit.


Cambridge Analyica, the company at the heart of the privacy scandal engulfing Facebook, is accused of fraudulently obtaining data from the social media giant and then using it to run election ads on behalf of US president Donald Trump and the Vote Leave campaign in the UK.

"These tech giants are actually using the users' data without their knowing, and what exactly they're using the data for," Arunima Tiwari, a Global Policy Analyst with the Indian research firm R Strategic, told RFI.

"And they are losing the users' trust because of these scams," she said.

A Cambridge academic called Aleksandr Kogan made a 'Test Your Personality' app, and paid users a small fee to get them to download it.

Two hundred and seventy thousand people did, sharing details about themselves, and unknowingly, their friends as well. Fifty million Facebook users in total were targetted. The information was then sold to Cambridge Analytica.

The UK data analysis company vigorously denies the charges levelled against it, but declined RFI's request for an interview.

"It is categorically untrue that Cambrige Analytica has never used Facebook data," Christopher Wylie, the company's former research director, who revealed the scandal, told British MPs on Tuesday 27 March.

"The acquisition using Alexander Kogan's app was the foundational data set of the company," Wylie said.

The scandal has raised disturbing questions about the use of social media in political campaigns.

Facebook insists it had no idea the data taken from its site was being used, but it took months to act and the episode has exposed yet again, its laxity towards privacy, after coming under fire in 2015 for not doing enough to tackle fake news.

No hacking

"Facebook is in the wrong because they were too lackadaisical about how they treated their users' privacy," reckons Chris Kavanagh, a Cognitive Anthropologist at Oxford, living in Japan.

However, he dismisses reports that the data breach was a hack, saying users granted Facebook permission for a third party app to access their data.

"They made use of a feature that was freely available to any developer on the Facebook platform that applied for it, prior to 2015. Describing it as a breach, suggests that they somehow exploited the system, but in reality they were making use of a feature that tens of thousands of developers use to harvest profile information and that kind of thing," he told RFI.

Emma Suleiman, founder and CEO of a digital PR agency in Paris, agrees.

“To be clear, it's not just Facebook," she told RFI. "Everything you do online is tracked, seen and registered. There are databases all over the world filled with your online life. This data is used for research, analysis, targeted advertising and probably for companies and governments spying on you. Is this a bad thing? It’s there any way but what you make of it is the real question.”

Tiwari for her part, wants better regulation. She says crypted language has enabled tech firms like Facebook to manipulate users.

"What they do is prepare a privacy policy that is vague and ambiguous, and users do not necessarily understand the language and what they're trying to portray."

Need for public awareness

Kavanagh hopes that the scandal will encourage users to be more cautious and to read the small print.

Right now, the terms and conditions are "buried so deep in the settings" that no one knows they can opt out of a third party app and prevent their data being shared by their friends, he said.

A new European law, called the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, set to be unveiled on May 25, wants to change that.

"GDPR will grant users greater control of their data," explains Tiwari.

"If any user wants to know what data a company has on them, they can, and have their data deleted," she said.

The outcry has stirred calls for users to disconnect through the hashtag #deletefacebook.

Trust is particularly low in Nigeria, after claims by Wylie that a Canadian-based affiliate of Cambridge Analytica spread violent images in to discredit opponents in the 2007 and 2015 elections.

"The general discussion that we've been having is that people will have to limit the amount of information that they give out online," Nnamdi Anekwe-Chive, director of the research firm Chive-GPS, told RFI.

Despite efforts by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to enhance the privacy of users, Anekwe-Chive says that "people are thinking of ways to limit the amount of data they drop online and curtail the amount of data that is available online."

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