Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday conceded that the company failed to inform the Federal Trade Commission that Cambridge Analytica had gained improper access to personal data belonging to millions of Facebook members, despite its 2011 settlement with the commission over earlier complaints of unauthorized data sharing.
Zuckerberg made the admission at a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees. In response to a question from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Zuckerberg said Facebook did not disclose the Cambridge Analytica data breach to the FTC because “we considered it a closed case.”
Looking back, it was “clearly a mistake” to take Cambridge Analytica at its word when it promised to delete the data, Zuckerberg said. Facebook did not follow up to confirm that the data had been deleted.
The exchange came during the early part of a grueling public hearing before 44 U.S. senators, in the aftermath of revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based data analytics firm, accessed the personal information of about 87 million Facebook members for use during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The disclosures began several weeks ago, when a whistleblower who previously worked with Cambridge Analytica alleged that the Facebook user data had been weaponized to target voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Zuckerberg on Tuesday found himself facing dozens of angry lawmakers who asked pointed questions about whether new privacy and disclosure laws needed to be enacted in the U.S., in light of the lack of candor and transparency on the part of Facebook, which claims more than 2 billion monthly active users.
One of the wealthiest and most powerful executives in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg took responsibility for the data breach during his opening testimony.
“I started Facebook, I run it, and I take responsibility for what happens here,” he said.
However, on several occasions he either deflected questions, said he was not personally aware of key decisions, or asked members to let his staff provide further information on several matters following the hearing.
Mind My Business
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked Zuckerberg about reports that Palantir — Peter Thiel’s data analytics company — had scraped Facebook data during the period when Cambridge Analytica was using Facebook data in connection with the 2016 election. Thiel, a noted supporter of President Trump and a board member at Facebook, is well known to Zuckerberg. However, Zuckerberg said he wasn’t aware if Palantir had scraped any Facebook data or whether it worked with Cambridge Analytica.
In another exchange, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook utilized a technique called “cross device tracking,” in which user data is tracked even if one of the devices is not directly connected to Facebook. The FTC previously had raised concerns about the practice, Blunt noted. Zuckerberg asked to have his staff do further follow-up on the issue in order to clarify the company’s current practice.
Zuckerberg was asked on more than one occasion whether he would support some regulatory oversight, possibly on the level seen in Europe, where data privacy and disclosure laws are much stricter than the U.S.
Zuckerberg expressed support for additional regulations under the right circumstances and said he would welcome further dialogue on the matter.
The ACLU challenged Zuckerberg’s testimony that Facebook users can control the way their information is used, and called on Congress to enact comprehensive privacy legislation.
“Contrary to what Zuckerberg repeatedly said, Facebook users do not have full control over all of their information,” maintained Neema Singh Guliiani, ACLU legislative counsel. “It’s time to make sure that Facebook and other companies give users real transparency and full control.”
It appeared that Zuckerberg tried to be as forthcoming as possible without going too deeply into the weeds in his responses to numerous detailed questions about disclosure, privacy and data practices, which were thrown at him by officials with varying levels of expertise on social media, observed Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and experiential solutions at IDC.
“Zuckerberg was trying to be as candid as the situation allows — which also includes gently educating some senators on technology, not just privacy and platforms — and staying in the Q&A time of each senator,” Kurtzman told the E-Commerce Times. “He was skillfully avoiding the rabbit hole of every data point measured and stored and how that has evolved.
Facebook will have to work to justify Zuckerberg’s hope that “what we do with data isn’t surprising to people,” Kurtzman said. For that to become reality, Facebook needs to encourage data literacy among its users — not just make public disclosures about how data is used.
Zuckerberg is scheduled for round two on Wednesday, when he will appear before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
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