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Brit Lawmakers Want Cambridge Analytica's Nix to Explain a Few Things

By David Jones E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Mar 23, 2018 10:36 AM PT
uk-parliament-fake-news-hearing

British lawmakers have demanded that Alexander Nix, the suspended chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, return to Parliament for additional questioning in its fake news inquiry. The Parliament's probe led to disclosures that Facebook had allowed Cambridge Analytica unauthorized access to up to 50 million user records, igniting a firestorm over user data privacy and possible U.S. voter manipulation.

MP Damian Collins, chair of the UK Parliament Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on Thursday sent a letter asking Nix to provide additional testimony, after media reports in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Channel 4 in the UK raised questions about Cambridge Analystica's use of private data in its research.

Nix on Feb. 27 had denied to the committee that Cambridge Analytica had received data from Global Science Research, Collins wrote in his letter.

GSR is the company that employed former Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan when he developed "thisisyourdigitallife," an app that garnered direct responses from more than 270,000 Facebook users -- and lifted data from tens of millions of others without authorization.

Muddy Waters

Collins told Nix in the letter that members of Parliament wanted to ask him about his earlier claims that "we do not work with Facebook data" or "have Facebook data."

Collins warned Nix that "giving false statements to a Select Committee" was a very serious matter. He asked for a response by March 27.

Collins also has written to Facebook, urging CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear before the committee in connection with the Cambridge Analytica disclosures.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who went public with revelations that Cambridge Analytica had gained unauthorized access to data belonging to 50 million Facebook users, tweeted that he had accepted requests to testify before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and the UK Parliament Digital Committee.

Wylie will appear on March 27, Lucy Dargahi, a spokesperson for the committee, confirmed to the E-Commerce Times.

Cambridge Analytica on Thursday tweeted that it would cooperate with the various inquiries.

Playing Fast and Loose

In the meantime, Sandy Parakilas, who was employed as operations manager at Facebook in 2011-12, on Wednesday testified before the Digital Committee in a hearing on fake news.

During his 16 months at Facebook, Parakilas did not know of a single audit of a developer's storage, he said, noting that Facebook typically found out about violations from press reports, or when competitors contacted the company regarding allegations that a rival might have accessed data.

"I would argue that the real challenge here is that Facebook was allowing developers access the data to people that had not explicitly authorized that," he testified.

Whether developers could gain access to unauthorized user data was a known issue that he and others questioned, Parakilas said.

Although the creator of the "thisisyourdigitallife" app was allowed direct access only to the 270,000 Facebook users who downloaded his quiz, he was able to access 30-50 million additional records by using friend permissions, according to Parakilas, who noted that the average Facebook user has about 200 friends.

Woke Nation

"This is a moment of awakening for many people," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director for social and experiential solutions at IDC.

They have come to "the realization that every social post, comment or 'like' is a viable data point that can be used to market ideas and products to them," he told the E-Commerce Times.

When you get something for free (like a social networking service), you are not the customer -- you are what is being sold, Kurtzman emphasized.

That concept is familiar to those who understand the business side of social media, but to some it has come as a shock.

Zuckerberg: 'Really Sorry'

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized for Facebook's shortcomings in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and promised that the company would do better.

"Mark and [COO Sheryl Sandberg] know how serious this situation is and are working with the rest of Facebook leadership to build stronger user protections," said Sue Desmond-Hellman, lead director of the company's board. "They have built the company and our business and are instrumental to its future."

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Zuckerberg appeared hesitant about personally appearing before Congress, but said if he were the right guy for the job, he would do it.

Zuckerberg generally prefers to work behind the scenes, but he and other top Facebook executives apparently have begun to appreciate the gravity of the moment.

I am sure that Mark Z would prefer not to appear at a hearing -- given how witnesses get lectured for hours at a time," remarked Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at Poynter. "

However, "the scope of these problems is bad enough that he will probably grit his teeth and do it," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Zuckerberg's remarks were a "step in the right direction," IDC's Kurtzman said.

The reality of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal is encapsulated in a recent book, Technically Wrong, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Facebook treats its social media members like low-quality products -- almost like slaves, he told the E-Commerce Times. They have no rights, and Facebook's only concern is satisfying the advertiser that pays the bills.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Enderle said. "Facebook is the canary in the coal mine, and an early indicator of what may happen to other companies next."

The view that users don't really count eventually may lead to the government getting directly involved, he warned, to police how data is managed.


David Jones has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2015. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, e-commerce, open source, gaming, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. He has written for numerous media outlets, including Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times. Email David.


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