Both Facebook And Cambridge Analytica Threatened To Sue Journalists Over Stories On CA's Use Of Facebook Data
from the this-is-bad dept
I’m going to assume that you weren’t living in an internet-proof cave this weekend, and caught at least some of the stories about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The news first kicked off with the announcement of a data protection lawsuit filed against Cambridge Analytica in the UK on Friday evening (we’ll likely have more on that lawsuit soon), followed quickly by an attempt by Facebook to get out ahead of the coming tidal wave by announcing that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and some associated parties from its platforms, claiming terms of service violations. This was quickly followed on Saturday with two explosive stories. The first, from Carole Cadwalladr at The Guardian, revealing a “whistleblower” from the very early days of Cambridge Analytica (who more or less set up how it works with data profiles) named Christopher Wylie. This was quickly followed up by another story at the NY Times, which was a bit more newsy, providing more details on how Cambridge Analytica got data on about 50 million people out of Facebook.
Admittedly — much of this isn’t actually new. The Intercept had reported something similar a year ago, though it only said it was 30 million Facebook users, rather than 50 million. And that story built on the work of a 2015 (yes, 2015) story in the Guardian discussing how Cambridge Analytica was using data from “tens of millions” of Facebook users “harvested without permission” in support of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
There’s a lot of heat on this story right now, and a lot of accusations being thrown around, and I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure where I come down on the details yet. I assume people on basically both sides of this issue will scream at me and call me names over this, but there’s too much going on to fully understand what happened here. I will note that, in that Guardian story in 2015, Cruz told the publication that this data collecting and targeting effort was “very much the Obama model.” And political consultant Patrick Ruffini has a well worth reading Twitter thread arguing that people are overreacting to much of this, and that the 2012 Obama campaign did the exact same thing, and was celebrated for its creative use of data and targeting on the internet. Ad tech guy Jay Pinho makes the same point as well. Here’s a Time article from 2012 excitedly talking up how the Obama campaign used Facebook in the same way:
That?s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists. In an instant, the campaign had a way to see the hidden young voters. Roughly 85% of those without a listed phone number could be found in the uploaded friend lists.
Of course, there is one major difference between the Obama one and the Cambridge Analytica one, which involves the level of transparency. With the Obama campaign, people knew they were giving their data (and friend’s data) to the cause of re-electing Obama. Cambridge Analytica got its data by having a Cambridge academic (who the new Guardian story revealed for the first time is also appointed to a position at St. Petersburg University) set up an app that was used to collect much of this data, and misled Facebook by telling them it was purely for academic purposes, when the reality is that it was setup and directly paid for by Cambridge Analytica with the intent of sucking up that data for Cambridge Analytica’s database. Is that enough to damn the whole thing? Perhaps.
As for the claims that this is just the same old Facebook model of selling everyone’s data… that was not true and still is not accurate. Facebook doesn’t sell your data. It sells access to its users via the data it has on you. That may not seem different, but it is different. But the lines do seem to get a bit blurry, as it appears that Cambridge Analytica, via its partnership with the professor Dr. Aleksander Kogan (who apparently briefly changed his name to — I kid you not — Dr. Spectre) and his “Global Science Research,” basically paid people via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to do a “personality assessment” on Facebook that, as part of the process, exposed information about their entire social graph, which GSR apparently hoovered up and passed along to Cambridge Analytica.
At the very least, it can be said that Facebook should have recognized much earlier that this could and would be done, and to understand the potential privacy problems related to it. Facebook has a fairly long and painful history of not quite realizing how what it does impacts people’s privacy, and this is one more example.
But, it’s raising a bigger question, as well, and it’s one that caused Facebook to do something that I’ll definitively call as “incredibly stupid,” which is that it threatened to sue the Guardian over its story, mainly because the Guardian story refers to this whole mess as a “data breach” for Facebook’s data.
Facebook instructed external lawyers and warned us we were making 'false and defamatory' allegations. Today they said it was not correct to call this a data breach. We are calling it a data breach. https://t.co/Q8wrw0FDyr
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) March 17, 2018
And, of course, Facebook wasn’t the only one who threatened to sue. Cambridge Analytica did too:
The Observer also received the first of three letters from Cambridge Analytica threatening to sue Guardian News and Media for defamation.
There are issues of terminology here. Facebook, in its post, is adamant that what happened is not a “breach”
The claim that this is a data breach is completely false. Aleksandr Kogan requested and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent. People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.
There are legal reasons why Facebook is so concerned about whether or not this is a “breach” and, let’s face it, the company is about to face a million and a half lawsuits over this, not to mention government investigations (already Senator Amy Klobuchar has demanded Mark Zuckerberg’s
head on a platter testimony before the Senate and Massachusetts’ Attorney General Maura Healey has announced the opening of an investigation, and there have also been rumblings out of the UK and the EU, as well as the FTC). But, there are also some fairly important legal obligations if this was a “breach” in the traditional sense, such as disclosing that to those impacted by the breach.
I’m not entirely sure where I come down on the breach question. It doesn’t feel like a traditional breach. It wasn’t that Facebook coughed up this info, it was its users coughed up the info… and Facebook just made it easy for this outside “academic” to hoover up all that info by paying a bunch of people to take dopey personality quizzes. However, as the Guardian’s Alex Hern points out, how do you distinguish what Kogan/GSR/Cambridge Analytica did from social engineering to get information.
If you're having trouble thinking of today's story as a "breach", try rephrasing it in your head as "Facebook fell prey to a social engineering attack in which it was convinced to hand over user data by an attacker who told it what it wanted to hear".
— you heard it here first: tweting is bad (@alexhern) March 17, 2018
Of course, there is something of a difference: it still wasn’t Facebook per se coughing up the info. It was Facebook’s own users. And, you might even argue that if you believe that Facebook doesn’t “own” all this data in the first place, that it was actually those Facebook users coughing up a bunch of their own data — including lots of data about their friends. Needless to say, this is a mess where a lot more transparency might help, and that transparency is going to be forced upon Facebook with a sledgehammer in the near near future.
But, regardless of where you come down on all of this, Facebook threatening defamation against the Guardian for calling this a data breach is ludicrous and Facebook should be ashamed and apologize. Even as it clearly disagrees with how the Guardian characterized much of the story, that’s no excuse to whip out defamation threats. Not only is it incredibly stupid from a Facebook PR perspective (and makes the company look like a giant bully), it suggests that the company still has absolutely no fucking clue how to communicate with the press and the public about how its own platform works.
It’s actually quite incredible to recognize just how big Facebook has gotten in the face of how little it seems to understand about what its own platform does.