Possibility of other sinister goings-on at Cambridge raised at Zuckerberg hearing

Image credit: Jason McELweenie

In response to a question by Democratic representative Anna Eshoo, Zuckerberg told the US Congress that he too had been victim to a vast data sweep by app thisisyourdigitallife, built by Aleksandr Kogan, an academic at Kings College, Cambridge. Facebook has not yet confirmed whether the company behind the data mining is GSR, again founded by Kogan, due to ongoing investigations into other companies.

Zuckerberg admitted legal action was being considered, with Cambridge University the prime target. “What we found now is that there’s a whole programme associated with Cambridge University where...there were a number of other researchers building similar apps,” he testified.

“We do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us,” he continued, implying the social media giant could even sue, should something be found amiss.

In response to his comments, the University said it was “surprised” to learn Zuckerberg had not been previously aware of its work in psychographics. “Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, and these studies have been reported widely in international media,” it added, speaking to The Guardian. “These have included one study in 2015 led by Dr Aleksandr Spectre [Kogan] and co-authored by two Facebook employees.”

But when asked whether he was willing to change the “minefield” of Facebook’s business model to protect users’ privacy by Eshoo, the 33-year-old Harvard dropout responded: “Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means.” Following questioning from Democrat Frank Pallone on making a clear commitment to changing the site’s default settings to minimise the possible collection of personal data, Zuckerberg’s answer, that “this is a complex issue that I think deserves more than a one-word answer,” was seen as “disappointing” by the Senator.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Facebook has found itself the subject of controversy. From its inception, founder Zuckerberg took users’ private information without permission, uploading images of fellow students to his site. Back in 2007, a Harvard University alumni magazine published Zuckerberg’s social security number, and both his and his girlfriend’s home addresses. In June 2008, Facebook was ordered to transfer $20 million in cash to the Winklevoss twins for allegedly having stolen their business idea. Finally, in 2013, The Washington Post reported that Zuckerberg’s profile had been hacked by an unemployed web developer.

In spite of Zuckerberg’s reticence to change Facebook’s privacy rules, both interrogators and interrogatee were in agreement that more regulation is necessary. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), due to come into force next month, is being hailed as the prime example of what future regulation should look like. Frank Pallone, a US Representative for New Jersey, said he was “happy” to hear Zuckerberg’s concession that “his industry needed to be regulated,” adding: “We need comprehensive privacy and data protection legislation.”

“Your success story is an American success story, embodying values such as freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise,” noted committee chairman, Greg Walden, in his opening remarks. But with something between 85-90% of Facebook’s users based outside the US, the company is heavily reliant on an international approach to remain ahead of the game.

Over the first two days of this high-profile trial, it has become clear that the introverted multi-millionaire is particularly uncomfortable fielding questions on data ownership, repeatedly avoiding the question of how much data Facebook holds about users’ browsing history, or who owns the “virtual you”, through misdirection. Zuckerberg stated that all content uploaded to Facebook belongs to the uploader, and can be deleted at their will. The truth, however, is a little more nuanced: Facebook keeps track of your social media habits, in order to provide targeted ads and information. This tactic has been credited with the rise of “fake news” on social media, strongly believed to have swayed the results of the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election in 2016.

It took Zuckerberg over a minute to answer senators’ questions on user data, eventually conceding that all information was stored by the company. Nonetheless, he chose his words carefully, stating that browsing information is not strictly part of “your content”, as “you” did not upload the information in the same way as, say, a new profile picture.


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