After several days of silence, amid a growing chorus of criticism, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg publicly addressed the misuse of data belonging to 50 million users of the social network.
“We have a responsibility to protect your data,” Zuckerberg said Wednesday in a Facebook post, his preferred means of communication, “and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
Zuckerberg, 33, was trying to quell a ballooning crisis over reports last weekend that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, had used data that had been improperly obtained from Facebook to target voters for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The statement fell short of a full-throated apology, but in his post, Zuckerberg said that Facebook would contact users whose data had been harvested through a personality quiz app and passed along to Cambridge Analytica.
In his statement, Zuckerberg laid out a timeline of Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica and described the steps the company would take to safeguard the information of its more than 2 billion monthly users.
Zuckerberg said Facebook would investigate apps, like the third-party quiz app, that had access to “large amounts of information” from the social network from before it had made changes to its policies. He also said the company would restrict third-party developers’ access to data on the social network.
“We also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it,” he wrote.
The revelations about Cambridge Analytica were just the latest to raise red flags about Facebook’s handling of user data and security, and came after the company has faced intense criticism over Russian manipulation of the platform before and after the 2016 presidential election, and broader concerns about the rise of misinformation on the site.
The resulting backlash has thrust Facebook into its worst crisis since it was founded in 2004. The information, photos and other content that users post and their frequent engagement with the platform is crucial to the social network, and its business. Questions about user privacy and security threaten to derail that mission, at a time when people are already perturbed about whether the use of technology can bring good or ill.
The reaction to the disclosure of the information harvesting by Cambridge Analytica has been severe. Politicians in the United States and in Britain have called for Zuckerberg to explain how his company handles user data, and state attorneys general in Massachusetts and New York have begun investigating Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. A #DeleteFacebook movement calling on people to close their accounts has also gathered steam among those who have lost confidence that the company is trustworthy in collecting — and safeguarding — their data.
In Washington, there have been more calls for regulation of internet companies like Facebook. Zuckerberg’s troubles there were illustrated by the final passage on Wednesday of a bill to combat sex-trafficking that lifted the blanket liability protections that internet companies have enjoyed for content on their platforms. Facebook and other internet giants had quietly fought the bill for more than a year, but ultimately dropped their opposition.
Lawmakers who have demanded that Zuckerberg testify before Congress about Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica were not appeased by his statement.
“You need to come to Congress and testify to this under oath,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., tweeted in response to Zuckerberg’s post.
Independent researchers who have used data from Facebook said that Zuckerberg’s statement did not acknowledge how the very gathering of user data is fundamental to the company’s operations.
“He avoided the big issue, which is that for many years, Facebook was basically giving away user data like it was handing out candy,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “There is no question that handing out that data made Facebook the success it is as a company. This has to be recognized as part of their business model and not just a one-off problem.”
Zuckerberg traced the information-sharing issue to 2007, when Facebook decided to become an open platform — enabling people to use Facebook to log into other apps and share detailed personal information about themselves and their friends.
In 2013, Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University researcher, created a personality quiz app that about 300,000 people installed, Zuckerberg wrote. Because Facebook was an open platform, Kogan was able to collect data on tens of millions of friends of those users who had installed the personality quiz app.
A year later, Zuckerberg said, Facebook changed its policy to limit how much data third-party apps could access. “These actions would prevent any app like Kogan’s from being able to access so much data today,” he wrote.
In 2015, The Guardian reported on Kogan, who had by then shared his data and findings with Cambridge Analytica, which used the material to target U.S. voters during the 2016 campaign. Zuckerberg said Facebook had banned Kogan’s app and demanded that the researcher and Cambridge Analytica formally certify that the data had been deleted. He did not address in his post why Facebook did not disclose those activities to its users whose data had been harvested by Kogan and Cambridge Analytica.
Last Friday, after The New York Times, The Observer of London and Channel 4 in Britain told Facebook that Cambridge Analytica had not deleted all of the data, the social network banned the political consulting firm and Kogan.
“This was a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook,” Zuckerberg wrote on Wednesday. “But it was also a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it.”
For Zuckerberg, the outcry over Cambridge Analytica has been personally damaging. Inside Facebook, even his staunch supporters have described a tense atmosphere. Some employees have sought to transfer to other divisions, such as the messaging app WhatsApp and the photo-sharing platform Instagram, calling their work on Facebook’s main product “demoralizing.”
Zuckerberg spent part of the past week hunkered down with a small group of engineers to discuss how to make information on Facebook’s users more secure, and to potentially give them more control of their data, according to two Facebook employees who declined to be named because the proceedings were confidential.
His silence on the matter has prompted mounting criticism in the past few days. While Facebook held a staff meeting on Tuesday to answer questions about Cambridge Analytica, Zuckerberg did not appear at the event. He was scheduled to appear at a staff meeting that was set for Friday.
Credit: The New York Times.