This week, Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook will soon debut a “Privacy Shortcuts” feature to enable users to easily delete data-scraping apps, but the announcement overshadows a bigger, far more controversial question on the minds of anybody paying attention to its latest scandal: Was my Facebook data sold by Cambridge Analytica for political reasons?
The answer from Facebook to its users asking themselves that is, essentially, “we’ll let you know soon.”
Some 50 million Facebook users — including the 270,000 users who took a personality quiz under the guise of academic research — saw their personal data snared by Cambridge Analytica, the UK firm founded by “brilliant computer scientist” and right-wing billionaire donor Robert Mercer. The Trump campaign paid $5.9 million to Cambridge Analytica, as did other Republican campaigns and Super PACs, to determine where to buy ads and target resources, based on the Cambrige Analytica-developed psychographic models of people who took a personality quiz, and their Facebook friends.
On March 16, a day before The New York Times and The Guardian published stories about the unauthorized sale of user data by Cambridge Analytica, Facebook announced it had suspended the firm for violating its policies.
Zuckerberg was largely silent about the ballooning scandal, until he conducted several interviews on March 21. One was with CNN’s Laurie Segall, wherein he said Facebook was building a tool for users to check if they were part of the data breach. Here’s the exchange:
“We’re going to build a tool where anyone can go and see if their data was a part of this.”
Zuckerberg told Segall during that sit-down at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, California, that a solution was coming … eventually: “We may not have all the data in our system today, but anyone whose data might have been affected by this, we’re going to make sure we tell [them].”
Ten days later, Facebook has announced the more general Privacy Shortcuts tool, but the considerably more controversial and potentially outrage-inducing Cambridge Analytica tool is seemingly still in the pipeline someplace.
A Facebook representative referred to this Washington Post story when asked why Privacy Shortcuts was released before the Cambridge Analytica tool, which might be considered a higher priority, given the extremely negative reaction from users that spawned the #DeleteFacebook movement.
Facebook said it did not implement the changes entirely because of Cambridge Analytica — and wasn’t motivated solely by Europe’s new data protection rules, either. But Rob Sherman, the company’s deputy chief privacy officer, acknowledged in an interview that the company must repair its relationship with users.
“People aren’t going to trust Facebook, they’re not going to be comfortable using it, if we’re not an ethical steward of data,” he said. “I think, certainly, what’s clear over the past week or so is that we’ve lost a lot of trust and we have to do some work to regain it, and that’s something I think all of us at Facebook have internalized and are working really hard to do.”
When Inverse asked Facebook when the Cambridge Analytica tool might be released, we were referred to a line deep in Zuckerberg’s lengthy March 21 post about the scandal, specifically where he writes, “we’ll have more changes to share in the next few days.”
Possible Legal Fallout
There might be a tidal wave of Facebook users who seek legal action against the company, once they confirm their data was tied up by Cambridge Analytica. Democrats may especially be angered, as the firm transacted with Trump, Ted Cruz, Roy Blunt, John Bolton, Ben Carson, and other politicians, according to Federal Election Commission data. (Cambridge Analytica also “talked business” with Russians, reported the Times.) Also, attorneys general in 34 states have asked seven serious questions of Zuckerberg, and a class-action lawsuit has been filed in Southern Texas District Court on behalf of the 50 million users.
It’s not that Privacy Shortcuts isn’t appreciated by users — even those who criticized Zuckerberg in the comments were thankful it was added — but it’s that the feature should have existed all along. Critics of Facebook say the company valued money over users by not making it easier for people to remove data-scraping apps that generate revenue for Facebook. Removing third-party apps requires a hellish amount of tedious clicks, so many can’t be bothered to do it.
Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica tool may arrive in the coming days. Its first quarter earnings call is typically in early May and Zuckerberg and other executives will have to address how they are making changes for great transparency and security to keep people from deleting Facebook and leaving the platform.
“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” Zuckerberg said in his March 21 post about the Cambridge Analytica. Once the tool comes out, that message may have come too late for millions of Facebook users.