US Lawmakers Take Facebook To Task Over Data Controversy

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Lawmakers across the political spectrum have called for closer scrutiny of internet firms following allegations over the illegitimate use of Facebook users’ data

US lawmakers from across the country’s political spectrum have called for closer scrutiny of Facebook’s data practices, after a report over the weekend suggested data on millions of the social network’s users may have been used in political campaigns.

The report adds to already growing pressures to reform the way internet companies’ use of personal data is regulated.

In an interview carried by The Observer on Sunday, data expert Christopher Wylie said he had worked with London-based Cambridge Analytica to collect information on more than 50 million Facebook users, which was then used to build detailed voter profiles.

The profiles, mostly of US citizens, were used to target voters in political campaigns, Wylie said, adding that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook were both aware of what was happening.

data encryption

Political pressure

In the interview, Wylie called the use of data to manipulate voters’ sentiments a “psychological warfare tool”.

Facebook has previously said it was assured the data was deleted, while Cambridge Analytica has said it deleted the information after learning it was collected under an academic licence, which doesn’t allow commercial exploitation. Both companies have denied wrongdoing.

Republican senator Marco Rubio said he believed some internet companies have concentrated on growing quickly while failing to live up to their legal obligations.

“Yeah, I’m disturbed by that,” Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” programme.

Rand Paul, another Republican senator, said the report eroded users’ trust in companies such as Facebook.

“Whether or not it broke the law, absolutely, the privacy of the American consumer, the American individual, should be protected,” he said on the CNN news network.

Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said the incident was “a major breach that must be investigated”, while Adam Schiff, a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Washington Post that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should “come testify before the appropriate oversight committees”.

“And not just Mark but the other CEOs of the other major companies that operate in this space,” Schiff added.

ICO probe

In a blog post on Friday, ahead of the report, Facebook said it had suspended Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook account while it investigated the issue.

On Sunday the company released a new statement in which it said it was carrying out a “comprehensive internal and external review” to determine whether the data in question had been deleted as it believed.

Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge associate professor, originally collected the data for research purposes under the auspices of his company Global Science Research (GSR) and later passed it on to Cambridge Analytica. He has denied contravening Facebook’s policies, according to reports.

The Information Commissioner’s Office, which is investigating Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Brexit referendum, said it is also looking into the way the Facebook data was used.

“We are continuing to invoke all of our powers and are pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry,” said information commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously.”

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