Facebook faces lawmaker questions over election data misuse

Facebook is being called to account for how it handled Cambridge Analytica's misuse of data and American vote manipulation, with lawmakers demanding answers for what the social site insists was not a data breach. Reports last week revealed that, thanks to several hundred thousand Facebook users voluntarily taking part in a supposed psychology test, the data of approximately 50m users was then extracted.

Access to that data was not, at the time, in contravention of Facebook's own policies for developers. However, the researcher behind the psychological test, Dr. Aleksandr Spectre, subsequently provided his data set to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. That organization used the data to build precise profiles of US voters, which were then used for targeted campaigns in the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook has insisted that, despite portrayals otherwise, this was not a data breach. Instead, the social network maintains that Spectre's data collection was permitted under – since changed – rules it had about the use of its APIs for research means. However, Cambridge Analytica's use of the data was not permitted; however, all Facebook did when it was notified back in 2015 was demand little more than the company's promise that the data had been deleted.

Now, the saga has caught the attention of US lawmakers. Ron Wyden, an Oregon senator, has asked Mark Zuckerberg to explain not only the specific incident involving Cambridge Analytica, but Facebook's measures around third-party collection and user of user data as a whole. The senator has given Zuckerberg & Co. until April 13, 2018 to respond.

Among the comments Senator Wyden makes in his letter is the observation that Facebook seemingly only stopped both Spectre and Cambridge Analytica from accessing its platform this past week, and even then only – he suggests – because at least two newspapers were planning to expose the situation. He asks how many such incidents have taken place in the past decade, and how Facebook handled them, and demands an explanation as to why it took this long for the company to ban the political firm. He also asks whether Facebook has notified users that their data may have been inappropriately collected or used.

"The troubling reporting on the ease with which Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit Facebook's default privacy settings for profit and political gain throws into question not only the prudence and desirability of Facebook's business practices and the dangers of monetizing consumers' private information," Sen. Wyden writes, "but also raises serious concerns about the role Facebook played in facilitating and permutation the covert collection and misuse of consumer information. With little oversight – and no meaningful intervention from Facebook – Cambridge Analytica was able to use Facebook-developed and marketed tools to weaponize detailed psychological profiles against tens of millions of Americans."

For Facebook, it's signs of a tricky time ahead. Election manipulation remains a hot topic, not least with the Mueller investigation ongoing as it seeks to ascertain what role Russian influences may have played in electing President Trump. With lawmakers wading in, the big risk for the social network is that new regulations around how it operates could well be the next step.

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