Facebook must change and policymakers must act on data, warns uk watchdog – tech news mag

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham was giving evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee in the UK parliament this morning. She’s just published her latest report to parliament, on the ICO’s (still ongoing) investigation into the murky world of data use and misuse in political campaigns.

Since May 2017 the watchdog has been pulling on myriad threads attached to the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data misuse scandal — to, in the regulator’s words, “follow the data” across an entire ecosystem of players; from social media firms to data brokers to political parties, and indeed beyond to other still unknown actors with an interest in also getting their hands on people’s data.

“I think we were astounded by the amount of data that’s held by all of these agencies — not just social media companies but data companies like Cambridge Analytica; political parties the extent of their data; the practices of data brokers,” she said.


“We also looked at universities, and the data practices in the Psychometric Centre, for example, at Cambridge University — and again I think universities have more to do to control data between academic researchers and the same individuals that are then running commercial companies.

“The major concern that I have in this investigation is the very disturbing disregard that many of these organizations across the entire ecosystem have for personal privacy of UK citizens and voters. So if you look across the whole system that’s really what this report is all about — and we have to improve these practices for the future,” she added. “We really need to tighten up controls across the entire ecosystem because it matters to our democratic processes.”

Asked whether she would personally trust her data to Facebook, Denham told the committee: “Facebook has a long way to go to change practices to the point where people have deep trust in the platform. So I understand social media sites and platforms and the way we live our lives online now is here to stay but Facebook needs to change, significantly change their business model and their practices to maintain trust.”

“I understand that platforms will continue to play a really important role in people’s lives but they need to take much greater responsibility,” she added when pressed to confirm that she wouldn’t trust Facebook. A code of practice for lookalike audiences

Inferred data refers to inferences made about individuals based on data-mining their wider online activity — such as identifying a person’s (non-stated) political views by examining which Facebook Pages they’ve liked. Facebook offers advertisers an interests-based tool to do this — by creating so-called lookalike audiences comprises of users with similar interests.

But if the information commissioner’s view of data protection law is correct, it implies that use of such tools to infer political views of individuals could be in breach of European privacy law. Unless explicit consent is gained beforehand for people’s personal data to be used for that purpose.

“What’s happened here is the model that’s familiar to people in the commercial sector — or behavioural targeting — has been transferred, I think transformed, into the political arena,” said Denham. “And that’s why I called for an ethical pause so that we can get this right.

“I don’t think that we want to use the same model that sells us holidays and shoes and cars to engage with people and voters. I think that people expect more than that. This is a time for a pause, to look at codes, to look at the practices of social media companies, to take action where they’ve broken the law.”

Social media platforms should also disclose the use of lookalike audiences for targeting political ads at users, she said today — a data-point that Facebook has nonetheless omitted to include in its newly launched political ad disclosure system.

Asked whether the use of Facebook lookalike audiences to target political ads at people who have chosen not to publicly disclose their political views is legal under current EU data protection laws, she declined to make an instant assessment — but told the committee: “We have to look at it in detail under the GDPR but I’m suggesting the public is uncomfortable with lookalike audiences and it needs to be transparent.”

The ICO’s latest report to parliament and today’s evidence session also lit up a few new nuggets of intel on the Cambridge Analytica saga, including the fact that some of the misused Facebook data — which had found its way to Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre — was not only accessed by IP addresses that resolve to Russia but some IP addresses have been linked to other known cyber security breaches.

“That’s what we understand,” Denham’s deputy, James Dipple-Johnstone told the committee. “We don’t know who is behind those IP addresses but what we understand is that some of those appear on lists of concern to cyber security professionals by virtue of other types of cyber incidents.”

The regulator also revealed that it now knows exactly who at Facebook was aware of the Cambridge Analytica breach at the earliest instance — saying it has internal emails related to it issue which have “quite a large distribution list”. Although it’s still not been made public whether or not Mark Zuckerberg name is on that list.

The committee is pressing in this because Facebook gave earlier evidence to its online disinformation enquiry yet omitted to mention the Cambridge Analytica breach entirely. (Hence its accusation that senior management at Facebook deliberately withheld pertinent information.)

At the same time Denham also called for an ethical pause on the use of social media microtargeting of political ads, saying there was an urgent need for “greater and genuine transparency” about the use of such technologies and techniques to ensure “people have control over their own data and that the law is upheld”.

She also said the fine the ICO handed Facebook last month for the Cambridge Analytica breach would have been “significantly larger” under the rebooted privacy regime ushered in by the pan-EU GDPR framework this May — adding that it would be interesting to see how Facebook responds to the fine (i.e. whether it pays up or tries to appeal).

“We have evidence… that Cambridge Analytica may have partially deleted some of the data but even as recently as 2018, Spring, some of the data was still there at Cambridge Analytica,” she told the committee. “So the follow up was less than robust. And that’s one of the reasons that we fined Facebook £500,000.”

Data deletion assurances that Facebook had sought from various entities after the data misuse scandal blew up don’t appear to be worth the paper they’re written on — with the ICO also noting that some of these confirmations had not even been signed.

Dipple-Johnstone also said it believes that a number of additional individuals and academic institutions received “parts” of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data-set — i.e. additional to the multiple known entities in the saga so far (such as GSR’s Aleksandr Kogan, and CA whistleblower Chris Wylie).

“What is needed for tech companies — they’re already subject to data protection law but when it comes to the broader set of Internet harms that your committee is speaking about — misinformation, disinformation, harm to children in their development, all of these kinds of harms — I think what’s needed is an accountability approach where parliament sets the objectives and the outcomes that are needed for the tech companies to follow; that a Code of Practice is developed by a regulator; backstopped by a regulator,” she suggested.

“What I think’s really important is the regulators looking at the effectiveness of systems like takedown processes; recognizing bots and fake accounts and disinformation — rather than the regulator taking individual complaints. So I think it needs to be a system approach.”

On the regulatory powers front, Denham was generally upbeat about the potential of the new GDPR framework to curb bad data practices — pointing out that not only does it allow for supersized fines but companies can be ordered to stop processing data, which she suggested is an even more potent tool to control rogue data-miners.

But she said the ICO may need to ask parliament for another tool to be able to carry out effective data investigations. “One of the areas that we may be coming back to talk to parliament, to talk to government about is the ability to compel individuals to be interviewed,” she said, adding: “We have been frustrated by that aspect of our investigation.”

Both the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, and Kogan, the academic who built the quiz app used to extract Facebook user data so it could be processed for political ad targeting purposes, had refused to appear for an interview with it under caution, she said today.

On the wider challenge of regulating a full range of “Internet harms” — spanning the spread of misinformation, disinformation and also offensive user-generated content — Denham suggested a hybrid regulatory model might ultimately be needed to tackle this, suggesting the ICO and communications regular Ofcom might work together.

“It’s a very complex area. No country has tackled this yet,” she conceded, noting the controversy around Germany’s social media take down law, and adding: “It’s very challenging for policymakers… Balancing privacy rights with freedom of speech, freedom of expression. These are really difficult areas.”

“The main purpose of this [investigation] is to pull back the curtain and show the public what’s happening with their personal data,” she added. “The politicians, the policymakers need to think about this too — stronger rules and stronger laws.”