As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
This month revealed that Facebook are the real “April fools.” The Social Network may still have control over billions of peoples’ data and much of the content we are allowed to see, but the blunders have been coming in thick and fast. The company has had a busy four weeks, replete with accusations and disgraces. Here is a quick-and-dirty round-up:
Canada Privacy Watchdog Condemns Facebook
The Cambridge Analytica revelations prompted an investigation into Facebook’s data protection methods by Canada’s Privacy Commissioner. The report was released on April 25, with the conclusion that the social media provider had broken the country’s privacy laws, specifically, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, affecting hundreds of thousands of Canadian users.
In short, the findings were that:
- Facebook failed to obtain valid and meaningful consent of installing users.
- Facebook also failed to obtain meaningful consent from friends of installing users.
- Facebook had inadequate safeguards to protect user information.
- Facebook failed to be accountable for the user information under its control.
Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien will be seeking a court order to have the company prosecuted. “Facebook’s refusal to act responsibly is deeply troubling given the vast amount of sensitive personal information users have entrusted to this company,” he said. “The stark contradiction between Facebook’s public promises to mend its ways on privacy and its refusal to address the serious problems we’ve identified — or even acknowledge that it broke the law — is extremely concerning.”
Therrien also proposed – following an international trend we have noted on this column over the past few weeks – that a third-party regulator should be created that “holds companies responsible.”
Checking Zuckerberg’s Power
Mark Zuckerberg is the highly-recognizable public face of Facebook, in no small part due to the Hollywood biopic that sought to assure the public over of the story of the company’s founding. His somewhat eccentric manner and apparent desire to monitor much of the world’s population have lead to humorous online “rumors” of alien or robot heritage – but it appears even his own shareholders are now keen to see less of him.
An outline of an upcoming annual shareholder meeting reveals that shareholders think Zuckerberg, who holds the position of CEO and board chair, holds too much sway over the company, leaving the board with “only a limited ability to check Mr. Zuckerberg’s power.” The document points to several major scandals and states that, “We believe this lack of independent board Chair and oversight has contributed to Facebook missing, or mishandling, a number of severe controversies, increasing risk exposure and costs to shareholders.”
The proposal suggests separating the roles of board chair and CEO – will Zuckerberg soon have competition for control of Facebook, or will he be able to retain absolute authority over one of today’s most influential companies?
It may be no surprise that Facebook’s investors are not happy with the current leadership, as an April 24 financial statement estimated the company will face $3-5 billion in expenses related to a current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation into privacy practices and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “The matter remains unresolved, and there can be no assurance as to the timing or the terms of any final outcome.” Facebook and the FTC have reportedly been negotiating a settlement, although the multi-billion dollar predicted fine is expected to set a new record as the largest handed out by the commission.
Despite all this, the social media company has grown by $15 billion overall, and shares rose after the report was released. Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), who has previously urged the FTC to mete out harsh punishment over the privacy invasions, tweeted his displeasure: “Last month, I said that a fine in the low billions of dollars would amount to a slap on the wrist for Facebook. Tonight, we learned that’s how Wall Street sees it too – as a slap on the wrist. If the FTC won’t act, Congress has to.”
Some have criticized the estimated fine as a drop in the bucket for the highly-profitable company, but the damage to Facebook’s reputation has been infinitely greater than any single financial penalty could be. Again, we see the push toward regulation.
A “HORRIBLE Idea”
Most social media consumers are used to providing their email address to sign-in to online services. But only Facebook has made the faux-pas of actually asking for users’ email passwords. The story seemed like a hoax when it was revealed by Twitter user “originalesushi,” but Facebook soon confirmed that it was genuine.
“To continue using Facebook, you’ll need to confirm your email,” the company informed “originalesushi,” but a screenshot reveals that he was asked to enter not his email address, but his password.
Hey @facebook, demanding the secret password of the personal email accounts of your users for verification, or any other kind of use, is a HORRIBLE idea from an #infosec point of view. By going down that road, you're practically fishing for passwords you are not supposed to know! pic.twitter.com/XL2JFk122l
— e-sushi (@originalesushi) March 31, 2019
Although the small print said that Facebook would not store the passwords, it is clear by now that such promises cannot be trusted. “We understand the password verification option isn’t the best way to go about this, so we are going to stop offering it,” the company told The Daily Beast after the story broke.
Harvesting Email Address Books
Shortly after “originalesushi” made his discovery, Business Insider reported that, once a willing user had gone ahead and supplied his or her email password, a message would pop up that Facebook was “importing” the information from their email contacts list without asking permission – including those contacts who are not Facebook users.
A company spokesperson told the news outlet that Facebook had “unintentionally uploaded” the address books of 1.5 million users, and used the information to create targeted advertising, as well build its network of social connections. They added that the content of users’ emails was not collected, and that the company would notify the affected users and delete the contact information.
That is not the end of the matter, however, as New York Attorney General Letitia James is opening an investigation into it. “Facebook has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of respect for consumers’ information while at the same time profiting from mining that data. Facebook’s announcement that it harvested 1.5 million users’ email address books, potentially gaining access to contact information for hundreds of millions of individual consumers without their knowledge, is the latest demonstration that Facebook does not take seriously its role in protecting our personal information,” she said in a statement. Her office has an ongoing inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
Our final story is related to the ongoing efforts by Facebook and other Silicon Valley information filterers to install their own “fact checkers” to curate the content we are allowed to see. Mark Zuckerberg recently sat down with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of German publishing house Axel Springer, “to discuss the role quality journalism plays in building informed communities and the principles Facebook should use for building a news tab [essentially, a planned news stream on FB’s website] to surface more high quality news.”
During the conversation, Zuckerberg said he was considering paying “trusted” news publishers to provide “high-quality, trustworthy content” for the service. His goal is to develop a “direct relationship” with these assigned publishers, as well as possibly hiring editors to choose news stories that would be featured on the service.
Some have commented that paying a type of license fee is a departure from Facebook’s previous strategies for cooperating with news outlets, but, really, the core function has not changed: control over the flow of information.
At this point, reporting on Facebook’s myriad and seemingly constant controversy is starting to feel passé – there are just so many offending stories. The sad thing is that this column hasn’t even presented a complete list of the company’s scandals from April alone!
By now, the recommendation must be, simply, do not give this service your personal information. Facebook may be a useful tool for certain functions, but extreme caution is advised when it comes to supplying your personal details – on Facebook, anything you say or do, will be used against you.
Messages hidden in virtual reality devices set to be released by Facebook-owned company Oculus, stated, among other things, that “Big Brother is watching.” Nate Mitchell, head of virtual reality for Facebook said the “inappropriate” messages had been included by mistake, but what difference does that make? Facebook is already telling you what’s going on – why not listen?
That’s all for this week’s edition of You’re Never Alone. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
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