27 September 2023

Facing facts: How Facebook came foul of the UK Parliament

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Tom McKay* says that in an extraordinary move, a UK Parliamentary Committee has seized internal documents from Facebook, hoping to learn more about its data privacy practices.

The UK Parliament has seized internal Facebook documents in “an extraordinary attempt to hold the US social media giant to account” after being repeatedly spurned in their attempts to have the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg testify about its data privacy practices, the Observer reported earlier this month.

Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Chair, Damian Collins (pictured) invoked a “rare parliamentary mechanism” to order the founder of a US software company suing Facebook, Six4Three’s Ted Kramer, to hand over the documents while the latter was visiting London, according to the Observer.

The paper added that Collins sent a Sergeant-at-Arms to deliver a final warning to Kramer, then escorted him to Parliament, where he was informed that “he risked fines and even imprisonment if he didn’t hand over the documents.”

The documents in question allegedly contain correspondence with senior Facebook staff, including Zuckerberg, of interest to the UK’s investigation of a data-sharing scandal involving the now-defunct British political firm Cambridge Analytica.

In that incident, prior versions of Facebook’s friends data API allowed the company, which did US election work in possible violation of laws prohibiting foreign nationals from doing so, to collect data on millions of users without their consent by partnering with an app.

Facebook allegedly failed to alert the users in question or take any serious steps to safeguard the data until the matter exploded in a major scandal earlier this year.

The Observer wrote: “Facebook, which has lost more than US$100 billion in value since March when the Observer exposed how Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from 87 million US users, faces another potential PR crisis.”

“It is believed the documents will lay out how user data decisions were made in the years before the Cambridge Analytica breach, including what Zuckerberg and senior executives knew.”

MPs leading the inquiry into fake news have repeatedly tried to summon Zuckerberg to explain the company’s actions.

He has repeatedly refused.

Collins said this reluctance to testify, plus misleading testimony from an executive at a hearing in February, had forced MPs to explore other options for gathering information about Facebook operations.

According to CNN, Six4Three was the maker of an app called Pikini, which allowed Facebook users to find photos of their friends wearing bikinis.

The company alleges that while the app was permitted under a 2013 version of Facebook’s privacy policies, later revisions to the social media giant’s friends data API in 2015 destroyed their business.

Their case essentially alleges that by enticing developers to build apps around extensive access to user data that was then unilaterally revoked, Facebook defrauded them.

As CNN noted, Pikini itself is not necessarily all that important and has nothing to do with separate questions from the UK Parliament about alleged Russian infiltration of Facebook to mess with other countries’ domestic politics.

Yet the internal Facebook documents in question could shed light on management’s approach to data privacy issues around the same time it was dealing with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, at least if they’re as explosive as Six4Three says.

The Observer added that in court proceedings, Six4Three alleged that the documents show that to lure app developers, Facebook intentionally left open the loopholes in its privacy policies that Cambridge Analytica exploited: “The documents seized were obtained during a legal discovery process by Six4Three.”

“It took action against the social media giant after investing US$250,000 in an app.”

“Six4Three alleges the cache shows Facebook was not only aware of the implications of its privacy policy, but actively exploited them, intentionally creating and effectively flagging up the loophole that Cambridge Analytica used to collect data.”

“That raised the interest of Collins and his Committee.”

The documents are under seal in California court, and Facebook is urging the British Committee not to publish them, CNN reported — though the UK is obviously not under the jurisdiction of US State courts, and Committee member Ian Lucas tweeted that “Facebook will learn that all are subject to the rule of law. Yes, even them.”

According to Business Insider, Six4Three has also made “numerous other explosive allegations against Facebook,” including that Facebook accessed and monitored Android device microphones and iPhone photo albums without consent, as well as remotely activated device Bluetooth functions without consent to gain access to location data.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office levied a measly fine of less than one million dollars on Facebook in connection to the Cambridge Analytica scandal in late October — the maximum amount allowed under law.

“We have very serious questions for Facebook,” Collins told the Observer.

“It misled us about Russian involvement on the platform.”

“And it has not answered our questions about who knew what, when with regards to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.”

“We have followed this court case in America and we believed these documents contained answers to some of the questions we have been seeking about the use of data, especially by external developers.”

* Tom McKay is a staff writer at Gizmodo. He tweets at @thetomzone.

This article first appeared at www.gizmodo.com.au.

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