Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the Zuckerberg Congressional Hearings

On April 10th and 11th Congress held two days of questioning for Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, over user privacy. The two days of questioning were scheduled due to recent concern over how Facebook handles and lets third party users handle user data. This followed a purchase of user data by Cambridge Analytica, a political ad firm. Facebook claimed this sale was a violation of their terms about third party use of Facebook user’s data.

The story begins in 2015 with a psychologist named Alex Kogan, who, while working at the university of Cambridge created an app called thisisyourdigitallife that collected users’ Facebook data in exchange for a psychological evaluation. He used this data to create a psychometric algorithm, that is, an algorithm that could provide a psychological evaluation of an individual based on a set of data. 270,000 users signed up for the evaluation. The agreement these users signed, however, allowed Kogan to scrape not only extended data from the participants themselves but a more limited set of data points from their friend list.  This second data set included about 87 million people.

From the 270,000 users’ psychological evaluations and the profiles he generated from their data, Kogan generated a model that could be used to predict a psych evaluation given a similar data profile of another Facebook user. He applied his model to the larger set of 87 million people, generating a predicted score for each of them, and sold the scores to Cambridge Analytica, which was at the time working for the 2016 Trump campaign.  

Facebook claimed that the data collection was in line with their rules, but selling it to Cambridge Analytica was not. After this alleged breach of terms, Facebook insisted that Cambridge Analytica erase all copies of the scraped data. However, Christopher Wiley, who was the first to leak this incident, claimed that many copies of the data are still circulating and that some are likely in Russia.

This incident has raised questions about Facebook’s role in restricting access to its users’ data by third parties, as well as how to communicate to its users the nature of its user agreements more clearly. In the hearing, members of Congress questioned the accessibility of the user agreement to the average user, noting the difficulty for users to know exactly what data was being collected and in what way it was being used.

Another concern for some members was whether there was any systematic silencing of religious or conservative opinions by the algorithms tasked with sorting and presenting content on Facebook’s platform. Zuckerberg responded that despite his own and Silicon Valley’s left leaning inclinations, specific measures had been taken to combat those concerns and commented that he values an open space for the exchange of ideas. The only sort of content that is removed, he said,  is one that calls for violence.

The questions at the hearing varied in relevance, but in general Zuckerberg was well prepared, openly acknowledged that some change in policy and content management was necessary and forthcoming. Legislation to regulate Facebook seems unlikely.