Quo Vadis Facebook Data?

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Insight provided by Ing. Philip Micallef @ Diplomatique.Expert 

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We all read about the recent revelations on Facebook and the data of its users being used for purposes not originally intended for.  Facebook in fact suspended the account of an election political consultancy firm which supported the Donald Trump presidential election  and the  Brexit Movement.  Facebook’s decision was prompted by the fact that Cambridge Analytica, founded in USA but with its mother company now in United Kingdom, obtained and irregularly manipulated the information of about 50 million users of Facebook.

A joint investigation carried out by The New York Times and The Observer revealed that in 2014 the company made use of a database supposedly for academic research purposes and instead exploited this data without any permission to draw up electoral strategies during the primaries of the Presidential elections.  This was one of the worst data breaches, if not the worst, in the history of Facebook. Two years later, Cambridge Analytica, which still possessed this enormous amount of information provided consultancy services to the Trump campaign which resulted in his victory in November 2016.

Cambridge Analytica obtained this data through the services of a psychologist of the University of Cambridge, although the firm had the same name as the prestigious university it had nothing to do with it.  The psychologist, the Russian-American Aleksandr Kogan, had asked permission from Facebook to ask for data to Facebook users through an application intended for academic research. Kogan was sponsored with 800,000 dollars by Cambridge Analytica for  his work and managed to engage 270,000 Facebook users to participate and the application permitted him to learn about their civil status, location and preferences.  At the same time the application allowed Kogan to get the same information from the Facebook friends of the 270,000 users and this allowed him to have visibility of 50 million Facebook users.  One needs to stop here and reflect on this point.  Before accepting anyone as our Facebook Friend we need to ask ourselves whether we really want him/her as our friend and whether we are ready to share our Facebook posts with him/her without any reservations.

Sharing the information with Cambridge Analytica, Kogan violated the data protection policies of Facebook.  “In 2015 we knew that Kogan lied to us and infringed our data protection policies by using an application which used a Facebook login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a company which carries out political, government and military consultancy all over the globe” stated the Facebook press release signed by its vice president Paul Grewal.

Cambridge Analytica was founded by the US millionaire Robert Mercer who is considered to be one of the main economic contributor’s to Trump’s campaign.  Two years prior to Trump’s decision to go into politics Mercer had already invested 15 million dollars with the intention of possessing a tool which allowed one to know better the voters and influence their vote.  At the helm of the company was Alexander Nix who had founded Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) in the United KIngdom.  Nix also in 2016 supported the Brexit campaign.  Cambridge Analytica is at the moment being investigated by the special US investigator, Robert Mueller, who is looking into the Russian interference in the US Presidential elections and has recently asked for all the emails of the employees of Cambridge Analytica who worked for the Trump campaign.

It was later revealed that Cambridge Analytica intervened in elections in other countries and The Washington Post of 21 March 2018 states that it might have intervened in Australia, Brazil, Kenya, Malaysia and Mexico and did not exclude other countries.

Facebook is used by billions of users round the globe and is here to stay.  What lessons can we learn from this data privacy blatant infringement?  Can it be our data which is used? First and foremost be sure of the credentials of your Facebook friends before sharing any information with them.  An innocent photo of a cake you may have baked could be proof that health wise you do not suffer from a diabetic condition.  Photos of a trip being undertaken abroad may prompt some “friends” to rob your house or car! Secondly, be very wary of any surveys especially the ones on Facebook from firms you are not familiar with or are not sure about their credentials. Do not be persuaded by the lucrative prizes mentioned if you participate. Thirdly, before posting anything on Facebook ask the question “is it fine if my worst “enemy” or my employer or my local Member of Parliament sees the posting?  Can it somehow be used against me?”  Facebook is a great social media tool which permits us to bring the world closer and stay connected with friends and family all over the globe and to share and express what is important to us.  However, we need to use it properly and to the benefit of society at large just as a surgeon uses a knife to operate and heal patients.

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About the author

Ing. Philip Micallef has over thirty years experience in middle and senior management roles in both the public and private sectors in Malta, Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain and Bermuda. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Engineering B.Sc(Eng.) degree in Electrical Engineering specialising in telecommunications from the University of Malta.  Also holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. Between 1999 and 2002 served as non executive Director on the Board of Directors of Maltacom, the largest telecommunications company in Malta at the time. He was appointed from 2006 to 2009 member of the Council of the University of Malta, a body equivalent to a board of directors.
Areas of Expertise : Telecommunications, Airline Business, Spanish Politics

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