Facebook has been front and center in a scandal involving the sharing of consumers’ data with political data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. The Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation into how the company accessed data on around 50 million Facebook users, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Senate Commerce Committee has also demanded answers from Facebook as has Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). According to CNN the social media giant’s stock has lost about 12 percent of its value since The New York Times and The Guardian first broke the stories. The Guardian referred to the data misuse as a “breach,” which Facebook has pushed back on. Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth tweeted, “No systems were infiltrated, no passwords or information were stolen or hacked.”
The story started four years ago when Cambridge University (the university is not related to the analytics firm) researcher Aleksandr Kogan allegedly approached researcher Michal Kosinski to get Facebook data, which he had collected using a simple “online personality quiz” app that requires users to log in using Facebook to participate. According to The New York Times, while Kosinski refused to provide any data, his app was used to collect data. The Cambridge firm then allegedly paid Kogan over $800,000 to create a similar quiz app for with an aim to collect Facebook users’ profile data, including the list of pages they have “liked.” Kogan’s personality quiz app, dubbed “thisisyourdigitallife,” was a hit. Although it attracted 270,000 Facebook users to take part, Facebook’s APIs at the time let the app also collect a wide range of information about each authorized user’s friends. Since an average Facebook user has hundreds of friends in his/her friend-list, Kogan was able to leverage his user base of 270,000 people to collect data for about 50 million Facebook users for use in its ad-targeting work.
How to Protect Your Facebook Data
Other than Cambridge Analytica’s quiz app, there are thousands of other apps that function on the same model, promising to tell users, “how you’ll look in your 80s,” “which celebrity you look like,” “who’ll be your Valentine this year,” and more. All of these Facebook apps offer access using a user’s Facebook account and ask a user to grant the app’s developer access to a range of information from a Facebook profile, including name, location, email, and friends list. This “Login with Facebook” option also exists on hundreds or even thousands of websites, and works similarly. For consumers who are concerned about where their data is going, now may be a good time now to revisit those third-party apps that have authorization to access Facebook data. The simplest way to limit data sharing may be to delete or close Facebook accounts, but many users who use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family may be understandably hesitant to do this. This data scandal is big news in the tech industry, and could have enormous implications not just for Facebook but for tech and big data companies in general.