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How Facebook has reacted since the data misuse scandal broke

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will be questioned by US lawmakers today about the “use and abuse of data” — following weeks of breaking news about a data misuse scandal dating back to 2014.

Facebook responds to data misuse

The Guardian published its first story linking Cambridge Analytica and Facebook user data in December 2015. The newspaper reported that the Ted Cruz campaign had paid UK academics to gather psychological profiles about the US electorate using “a massive pool of mainly unwitting US Facebook users built with an online survey”.

Post-publication, Facebook released just a few words to the newspaper — claiming it was “carefully investigating this situation”.

Yet more than a year passed with Facebook seemingly doing nothing to limit third party access to user data nor to offer more transparent signposting on how its platform could be — and was being — used for political campaigns.

Through 2015 Facebook had actually been ramping up its internal focus on elections as a revenue generating opportunity — growing the headcount of staff working directly with politicians to encourage them to use its platform and tools for campaigning. So it can hardly claim it wasn’t aware of the value of user data for political targeting.

Yet in November 2016 Zuckerberg publicly rubbished the idea that fake news spread via Facebook could influence political views — calling it a “pretty crazy idea”. This at the same time as Facebook the company was embedding its own staff with political campaigns to help them spread election messages.

Another company was also involved in the political ad targeting business. In 2016 Cambridge Analytica signed a contract with the Trump campaign. According to former employee Chris Wylie — who last month supplied documentary evidence to the UK parliament — it licensed Facebook users data for this purpose.

The data was acquired and processed by Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan whose personality quiz app, running on Facebook’s platform in 2014, was able to harvest personal data on tens of millions of users (a subset of which Kogan turned into psychological profiles for CA to use for targeting political messaging at US voters).

Cambridge Analytica has claimed it only licensed data on no more than 30M Facebook users — and has also claimed it didn’t actually use any of the data for the Trump campaign.

But this month Facebook confirmed that data on as many as 87M users was pulled via Kogan’s app.

What’s curious is that since March 17, 2018 — when the Guardian and New York Times published fresh revelations about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, estimating that around 50M Facebook users could have been affected — Facebook has released a steady stream of statements and updates, including committing to a raft of changes to tighten app permissions and privacy controls on its platform.

The timing of this deluge is not accidental. Facebook itself admits that many of the changes it’s announced since mid March were already in train — long planned compliance measures to respond to an incoming update to the European Union’s data protection framework, the GDPR.

If GDPR has a silver lining for Facebook — and a privacy regime which finally has teeth that can bite is not something you’d imagine the company would welcome — it’s that it can spin steps it’s having to make to comply with EU regulations as an alacritous and fine-grained response to a US political data scandal and try to generate the impression it’s hyper sensitive to (now highly politicized) data privacy concerns.

Reader, the truth is far less glamorous. GDPR has been in the works for years and — like the Guardian’s original Cambridge Analytica scoop — its final text also arrived in December 2015.

On the GDPR prep front, in 2016 — during Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica ‘quiet period’ — the company itself told us it had assembled “the largest cross functional team” in the history of its family of companies to support compliance.

Facebook and Zuckerberg really has EU regulators to thank for forcing it to do so much of the groundwork now underpinning its response to this its largest ever data scandal.

Below is a quick timeline of how Facebook has reacted since mid March — when the story morphed into a major public scandal…

March 16, 2018: Just before the Guardian and New York Times publish fresh revelations about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook quietly drops the news that it has finally suspended CA/SCL. Why it didn’t do this years earlier remains a key question

March 17: In an update on the CA suspension Facebook makes a big show of rejecting the notion that any user data was ‘breached’. “People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked,” it writes

March 19: Facebook says it has hired digital forensics firm Stroz Friedberg to perform an audit on the political consulting and marketing firm Cambridge Analytica. It subsequently confirms its investigators have left the company’s UK offices at the request of the national data watchdog which is running its own investigation into use of data analytics for political purposes. The UK’s information commissioner publicly warns the company its staff could compromise her investigation

March 21: Zuckerberg announces further measures relating to the scandal — including a historical audit, saying apps and developers that do not agree to a “thorough audit” will be banned, and committing to tell all users whose data was misused. “We will investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information before we changed our platform to dramatically reduce data access in 2014, and we will conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity. We will ban any developer from our platform that does not agree to a thorough audit. And if we find developers that misused personally identifiable information, we will ban them and tell everyone affected by those apps. That includes people whose data Kogan misused here as well,” he writes on Facebook.

He also says developers’ access to user data will be removed if people haven’t used the app in three months. And says Facebook will also reduce the data users give to an app when they sign in — to just “your name, profile photo, and email address”.

Facebook will also require developers to not only get approval but also “sign a contract in order to ask anyone for access to their posts or other private data”, he says.

Another change he announces in the post: Facebook will start showing users a tool at the top of the News Feed “to make sure you understand which apps you’ve allowed to access your data” and with “an easy way to revoke those apps’ permissions to your data”.

He concedes that while Facebook already had a tool to do this in its privacy settings people may not have seen or known that it existed.

These sorts of changes are very likely related to GDPR compliance.

Another change the company announces on this day is that it will expand its bug bounty program to enable people to report misuse of data.

It confirms that some of the changes it’s announced were already in the works as a result of the EU’s GDPR privacy framework — but adds: “This week’s events have accelerated our efforts”

March 25: Facebook apologizes for the data scandal with a full page ad in newspapers in the US and UK

March 28: Facebook announces changes to privacy settings to make them easier to find and use. It also says terms of services changes aimed at improving transparency are on the way — also all likely to be related to GDPR compliance

March 29: Facebook says it will close down a 2013 feature called Partner Categories — ending the background linking of its user data holdings with third party data held by major data brokers. Also very likely related to GDPR compliance

At the same time, in an update on parallel measures it’s taking to fight election interference, Facebook says it will launch a public archive in the summer showing “all ads that ran with a political label”. It specifies this will show the ad creative itself; how much money was spent on each ad; the number of impressions it received; and the demographic information about the audience reached. Ads will be displayed in the archive for four years after they ran

April 1: Facebook confirms to us that it is working on a certification tool that requires marketers using its Custom Audience ad targeting platform to guarantee email addresses were rightfully attained and users consented to their data being used them for marketing purposes — apparently attempting to tighten up its ad targeting system (again, GDPR is the likely driver for that)

April 3: Facebook releases the bulk app deletion tool Zuckerberg trailed as coming in the wake of the scandal — though this still doesn’t give users a select all option, but it makes the process a lot less tedious than it was.

It also announces culling a swathe of IRA Russian troll farm pages and accounts on Facebook and Instagram. It adds that it will be updating its help center tool “in the next few weeks” to enable people to check whether they liked or followed one of these pages. It’s not clear whether it will also proactively push notifications to affected users

April 4: Facebook outs a rewrite of its T&Cs — again, likely a compliance measure to try to meet GDPR’s transparency requirements — making it clearer to users what information it collects and why. It doesn’t say why it took almost 15 years to come up with a plain English explainer of the user data it collects

April 4: Buried in an update on a range of measures to reduce data access on its platform — such as deleting Messenger users’ call and SMS metadata after a year, rather than retaining it — Facebook reveals it has disabled a search and account recovery tool after “malicious actors” abused the feature — warning that “most” Facebook users will have had their public info scraped by unknown entities.

The company also reveals a breakdown of the top ten countries affected by the Cambridge Analytica data leakage, and subsequently reveals 2.7M of the affected users are EU citizens

April 6: Facebook says it will require admins of popular pages and advertisers buying political or “issue” ads on “debated topics of national legislative importance” like education or abortion to verify their identity and location — in an effort to fight disinformation on its platform. Those that refuse, are found to be fraudulent or are trying to influence foreign elections will have their Pages prevented from posting to the News Feed or their ads blocked

April 9: Facebook says it will begin informing users if their data was passed to Cambridge Analytica from today by dropping a notification into the News Feed.

It also offers a tool where people can do a manual check

April 9: Facebook also announces an initiative aimed at helping social science researchers gauge the product’s impact on elections and political events.

The initiative is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Facebook says the researchers will be given access to “privacy-protected datasets” — though it does not detail how people’s data will be robustly anonymized — and says it will not have any right or review or approval on research findings prior to publication.

Zuckerberg claims the election research commission will be “independent” of Facebook and will define the research agenda, soliciting research on the effects of social media on elections and democracy

April 10: Per its earlier announcement, Facebook begins blocking apps from accessing user data 90 days after non-use. It also rolls out the earlier trailed updates to its bug bounty program

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Amazon puts its own devices on sale early for Prime Day

Amazon is kicking off today’s Prime Day a bit early. Although its annual sale technically begins at 12 PM PT / 3 PM ET this afternoon, it put its own devices on sale 12 hours early. The company is marking down its Alexa-enabled products like Echo, Fire TV, and Fire tablets, as well as its home security products like the Cloud Cam and more recently acquired Ring Video Doorbell. The retailer has also released a list of Prime Day deals, which encompasses other Amazon product discounts, as well as those from other manufacturers. This year’s Prime Day promises to be the largest yet, both in terms of the number of deals and the length of the sale itself, which has been stretched to 36 hours. Prime members will be able to shop over 1 million deals worldwide in an expanded number of international markets outside the U.S. That’s up from over 100,000 deals just two years ago, the retailer noted. The Amazon devices on sale now include the following: Save $20 on Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote, only $19.99 Save $110 on Toshiba 50-inch 4K Ultra HD Fire TV Edition, only $289.99 Save $30 on Echo Spot, only $99.99 Save $30 on Echo (Second Generation), only $69.99 Save $20 on Echo Dot Kids Edition, only $59.99 Save $100 on Echo Look, only $99.99 Save $60 on Amazon Cloud Cam, only $59.99 Save $75 on Ring Video Doorbell Pro, only $174 Save $30 on Fire HD8 tablet with Alexa, only $49.99 Save $30 on Fire HD 8 tablet and new Show Mode Charging Dock bundle, only $79.99 Eligible Prime members get 10% back on select Amazon devices, including Echo, Fire TV, and Kindle, when they shop on Prime Day using the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card or Amazon Prime Store Card Prime members new to Amazon Music Unlimited can six months free of the premium music streaming service with purchase of select Amazon Echo devices during Prime Day Amazon heavily discounts its own devices on Prime Day, so you can be sure these are pretty good deals. For example, the lowest price on the Fire TV Stick before today was $24.99 – now it’s $19.99. The Fire TV (Pendant) is also $10 less than it was during its biggest price drop. And even the brand-new Fire TV Cube has been marked down from $119.99 to $89.99. If you bundle it with a Cloud Cam, you can save $90 off both. Though oddly not in Amazon’s advertised list above, the Echo Dot is on sale, too. The smaller Echo speaker was last year’s best seller on Prime Day, and Amazon is clearly hoping to repeat history by marking down the Dot again. Last year, it was $34.99 on Prime Day, now it’s $29.99 – and one of the better deals to be found. The Echo with a screen – the Echo Show – has also been marked down from $229.99 to $129.99. A bundle of the Echo Plus and a Philips Hue Bulb – a good starter pack for the smart home – is on sale for $99.99. (The Echo Plus costs more than the $69.99 Echo, but you won’t need a separate smart home hub. It’s built-in.) The longer list of U.S. Prime Day deals is available here. Some of the highlights for TechCrunch readers include those in electronics and gaming, like savings on smart TVs; smart home products; headphones from Bose, Sony, Sennheiser, and Nura; 3D printers; gaming laptops and desktops; and more. Prime members can shop deals via the website, Amazon app, and can set up Watch a Deal alerts to start watching deals up to 6 hours before they are live. There’s also a savings Easter egg in the Amazon app this year. If you open the app and tap on the camera icon to use one of its tools – like AR View, Product Search, Barcode Scanner or Package X-Ray – you can save $5 off the Prime Day deals you purchase in the app. You can do this every 6 hours for multiple $5 discounts, Amazon says.

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