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During a Senate hearing with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a few of the questions asked by senators seemed to require an explanation of the basics.
SAN FRANCISCO — Among the 87 million people whose personal information was improperly harvested by Cambridge Analytica was Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The disclosure that details from Zuckerberg’s personal profile were shared with the voter targeting firm that worked for the Donald Trump campaign illustrates the extent of the Facebook data leak that brought its CEO to Capitol Hill this week.
What consumers whose data was breached can do about it is far less clear — a point driven home by broad skepticism from lawmakers who, in the second of two marathon congressional hearings, pressed Zuckerberg on whether Facebook’s 2.2 billion users really own and control their data and what, if anything, they can do to protect it.
During Wednesday’s hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, compared Facebook to The Truman Show where user information is made available to “people they don’t know and then that data is crunched and used and they are fully unaware of this.”
“Who’s going to protect us from Facebook?” asked Rep. Janice Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he believes it is “inevitable” that there will be regulation of his industry. (April 11)
Carolina Milanesi says she found out Tuesday night that her personal information was leaked to Cambridge Analytica. A friend of hers was one of the 300,000 Facebook users who downloaded a personality quiz app, This Is Your Digital Life. The researcher behind the app collected data not just on those users but on their Facebook friends, too, and then passed that data on to Cambridge Analytica.
Milanesi, a technology analyst from San Jose, says she’s not sure what to do with the knowledge that details from her Facebook account — including her likes, birthday and city — were exposed.
“There was a data breach at a company where I worked once, and my Social Security number and payroll information was taken. I could have set up an identity watch and bank watch to see if any activity was flagged for being unusual,” she said. “What can you do here?”
Facebook could face major fines if the Federal Trade Commission finds that the Cambridge Analytica leak violates the terms of the privacy settlement it reached with the company in 2012. Lawsuits that consumers can join have been filed. And consumers can adjust their privacy settings to restrict how much of their information can be used for targeted marketing, says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the privacy watchdog group Center for Digital Democracy.
“That won’t totally stop the data mining and profiling that Facebook does but will make it more difficult for it to take advantage of you,” Chester said.
This week some lawmakers called for a privacy bill of rights. On Tuesday, three senators introduced privacy legislation that would require user consent to collect and share data. Rep. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat from California, on Wednesday called for the creation of a digital consumer protection agency to oversee tech companies.
Facebook will soon be governed by stricter privacy controls in Europe, and Zuckerberg said he would extend those privacy protections, which take effect in May, to Facebook users in the U.S.
Yet privacy advocates say some of Facebook’s current practices appear to violate the new European law, called the General Data Protection Regulation. And, with American privacy laws stuck in the digital dark ages, there’s currently very little recourse for Facebook users whose privacy was breached by the Cambridge Analytica leak, says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“The reason we need privacy laws is precisely because individuals lose control over their personal information when it is transferred to a business,” Rotenberg said. “Privacy laws help ensure personal data is used only for its intended purpose.”
Notifications began going out Tuesday to as many as 87 million users, most of them in the United States, whose personal information was obtained by Cambridge Analytica. The U.K. firm uses data it collects to create detailed personality profiles of voters to sway them with targeted messages.
“It’s pretty sad and pathetic that a company of this size, that is supposed to be a ‘connection’ for the people, didn’t keep their ‘people’s’ data safe,” Taylor Bradford, an entrepreneur from Fort Worth, said of Facebook.
She didn’t download the personality quiz app; one of her friends did. But Bradford says she’s not losing any sleep over the data breach, having already taken precautions to lock down her Facebook account.
“If my birthday was shared, not really sure what that’s going to get you. And if you want to see what pages I like, again, not sure what that’s going to get you,” she said in an email. “If someone really wants your information, it’s not hard to get.”
Cambridge Analytica notifications appear at the top of users’ news feeds. Facebook has also provided a link to a help page for people to check if their information was shared with Cambridge Analytica.
Zuckerberg told a joint session of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday that Facebook is investigating all apps on the platform to make sure they are not using Facebook user information improperly. If any apps are found to be violating Facebook rules, Zuckerberg said Facebook would ban them from the social network.
Sheila Arkee, 39, the publisher of a beauty blog called Painted Ladies, says she already removed a lot of her personal information from Facebook such as her birthday and location out of concern for her privacy. She rarely posts status updates anymore and says she never clicks on “clickbait” quizzes. But she found out Tuesday night that one of her friends did.
“I am highly concerned about who has access to my personal data. What information have I innocently shared has become used in a way I’m absolutely uncomfortable with?” Arkee said. “How will any Facebook user know how or when our personal information may be used against us in a negative way in the future?”
Facebook doesn’t tell users who among their friends downloaded the quiz app, exposing their data to Cambridge Analytica. Some people have demanded to know. But Milanesi says it doesn’t matter to her.
“What would you do if you knew the friend, unfriend him or her?” she said. “For me it is really more about what is Facebook doing to avoid this in the future, and while I understand it will take time, I don’t want that to be an excuse not to get as much as possible done as soon as possible.”
Kita Bryant, 36, a photographer from Atlanta who runs the website It’s Really Kita, says she feels like she dodged a bullet.
Her information was not shared with Cambridge Analytica. In the future, Bryant says she will be more selective about what she shares online.
“I am very relieved,” she said. “I wasn’t as worried as everyone else, but I am glad that I didn’t have to worry about my personal info getting out there.”
More: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has promised to protect user privacy before. Will this time be different?
More: Six takeaways from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony on data breaches
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More: Zuckerberg: Federal regulation of Facebook ‘inevitable’
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