Facebook Controversy: What to Know About Cambridge Analytica and Your Data

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March 23, 2018 3:01 pm Published by

This week’s uproar over Facebook Inc. FB -3.34% started years ago, with the mishandling of user data. Now that incident, and what followed, is at the center of a debate over how well the world’s largest social network protects its trove of user data.

What is the current fuss about?

The crisis arose from news that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, had improperly accessed data on tens of millions of Facebook users.

In 2007, Facebook provided deep access to app creators and academics. Developers built games, dating apps and other social-friendly software. Meanwhile, researchers and marketers conducted their own studies. By 2015, Facebook clamped down on access, citing user privacy concerns.

But Facebook said it learned in 2015 that Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, broke its data policies when he shared Facebook user data gleaned from his personality-prediction app with others including Cambridge Analytica. The data included not just information on people who downloaded the app but about 30 different data points about those people’s Facebook friends, a surprisingly long reach.

Harvesting the data was allowed at the time, but sharing with others wasn’t. Facebook said it had received assurances the improperly accessed data had been deleted. The company later learned that wasn’t true and couldn’t independently confirm what data had been scrubbed.

Why does that matter so much?

Because it touches on longstanding fears about the enormous amount of information Facebook collects—it has nearly two billion users around the globe—and how that data is used.

When Facebook began suggesting friends to tag in photos posted to the social network, the feature ignited concerns the company surveilled people’s data. A conspiracy theory suggests Facebook listens to people through the microphones on their smartphones. (It says it isn’t.)

Years of controversies came to a head during the 2016 U.S. election, when it was revealed that a handful of Russian actors manipulated Facebook users by spreading misinformation on the social network.

How much data does Facebook really have?

When people use Facebook, they volunteer large amounts of information. It starts with what the social network calls a public profile: name, profile picture, cover photo, gender, networks and user ID.

But it also covers a person’s hometown, religious and political affiliations, work and education histories, and stated relationship interests (i.e., your sexual orientation).

Facebook also keeps tabs on every photo and video that has been uploaded, every post ever written, every place on the map that has been tagged, and every page—on Facebook or out in the web—that users ever “liked” with a click or tap.

In short, whatever users have volunteered to Facebook or interacted with on Facebook becomes part of a profile that can be accessed by developers and targeted by advertisers.

How do app developers get Facebook data?

Many apps and websites offer the option for people to sign in with Facebook. (Some even require it.) Until now, those apps and sites had access to the information in the public profiles.

Going forward, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg says, the only information apps and websites will receive by default will be a person’s name, profile picture and email address. He also said Facebook would curb an app’s access to data if a person hasn’t used that app in three months.

With permission from the user and from Facebook itself, app developers can—and do—get far more. Upon login, the services can ask for specifics such as a friend list, birthday or political beliefs. Before 2015, Facebook even let developers pull detailed information about friends, too. While Facebook has tightened rules, people should check their settings with this guide to see what might still be leaking out.

How does Facebook use this data? Does it give it to advertisers?

Facebook executives stress the company doesn’t sell data directly to advertisers. Handing over user data would be bad for Facebook’s business model, they argue.

What Facebook does is use that trove of information to build targeting tools that can be used by advertisers. The user data is supposed to ensure the ads users see are ones they would actually click on. Marketers can also pay to promote nonadvertising content, such as a post containing a news article, and target it with the same sharp focus.

Facebook also uses data in other ways, including creating a personalized news feed for everyone, every time they log on.

What fixes did Facebook announce Thursday and how significant are they?

Mr. Zuckerberg admitted the company has made mistakes and apologized for the controversy over how it handles user data. He said Facebook will investigate any other potential abuses by app developers who have had access to large amounts of people’s data.

Facebook plans to map out the quantity and type of data app developers requested between 2007 and 2015 (the year it tightened the reins), a far-reaching endeavor. Facebook will start by examining apps that had large user bases—100,000 people or more—and those apps that pulled extensive data about a smaller group of people, said people familiar with Facebook. The process could involve analyzing tens of thousands of apps, some said.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Zuckerberg said the company’s investigation into outsiders’ handling of its users’ information will help identify and deter bad actors but won’t be able to uncover where all the data ended up and how it is being.

“Like any security precaution, it’s not that this is a bulletproof solve,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. He reiterated his openness to regulation requiring more disclosure about online ads—an area Facebook already is working on.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com and Katherine Bindleyat Katie.Bindley@wsj.com

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