One Abuse It Still Hasn’t Owned Up To


Data Breach: Every day, it seems, Facebook faces new troubles on the privacy front. But there’s one breach that Facebook executives still have not accounted for. Namely, the wholesale transfer of user data to the Obama campaign in 2012.

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The latest privacy flap came when Facebook (FB) announced on Sunday that it was suspending data analytics firm CubeYou from its platform, pending an audit, after CNBC reported that the firm was collecting user data through Facebook quizzes, which CubeYou claimed was “for nonprofit academic research” but was reportedly shared with marketers.

On Monday, Facebook started sending notices to uses whose data ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica. It now says that an app — developed by an U.K.-based academic and called “This Is Your Digital Life” — could have collected Facebook data on 87 million users. Cambridge then got hold of the data while advising the Trump campaign.

Meanwhile, consumer groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. They allege that Facebook’s facial recognition software violates users’ privacy rights.

The Cambridge Analytica data breach was a violation of trust, no doubt. But there is clearly a political dimension to the intense, ongoing frenzy it unleashed. The story became an instant scandal because the Trump campaign was part of it.

But it was hardly the first time Facebook users had their information unwittingly scooped up by a political campaign.

Helping The Obama Campaign

As we’ve noted in this space, the Obama campaign, apparently with the eager assistance of Facebook itself, managed to gather up data possibly on every user at the time by encouraging people to sign up to the campaign website using their Facebook ID, which gave the campaign not only access to their data, but data on their Facebook friends. Which apparently included every U.S. user at the time.

As Obama campaign staffer Carol Davidsen tweeted after the Cambridge story broke, “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized what we were doing.”

This effort was widely known at the time. In fact, campaign officials bragged about it and multiple news outlets wrote glowing stories about the sophistication of the Obama campaign’s use of the social media platform to precisely target key campaign messages.

It is true that the Obama campaign was more upfront and honest with those signing up about how they planned to use the data than the “Digital Life” app was. But that distinction is meaningless to the tens of millions of their friends who, in both cases, had their Facebook data scraped for political purposes without their knowledge or consent.

What’s more, unlike the Cambridge data breach, the Obama campaign — as well as Facebook — might have violated campaign laws by making and accepting in-kind donations.

Unanswered Questions

Yet even now, no one is pressuring Facebook executives to explain what happened to all that data the Obama campaign collected. No one is calling on Facebook to send messages to its users letting them know if Obama’s data mavens Hoovered up their information.

And while the press keeps pressuring Facebook executives with questions about Cambridge Analytica, none bothers to ask them about what Facebook was doing in 2012.

Yes, 2012 was a long time ago, relatively speaking, but there are nevertheless important questions that still need answering.

Namely, is it true that Facebook let the Obama campaign access data in ways that no other organizations could? How many users had their data scraped by the campaign? Did any other groups outside the Obama campaign have access to this data? Where did all the data end up? Do Democrats still have access to it? Are they still using it?

If Facebook is going to come clean about its past privacy problems, it can’t ignore this part of the story.

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