TFK Explains: The Facebook Data Breach
April 13, 2018
What exactly happened?
In 2014, a political data company based in the United Kingdom gained access to personal information about Facebook users. The company, Cambridge Analytica, used that information to get to know many American voters. Its purpose was to influence the presidential election. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign used that information.
How many Facebook users were affected?
Over the span of a few months, Cambridge Analytica mined the data of 87 million Facebook users. That’s nearly one-quarter of all Facebook users in the U.S.
How was the data collected?
An online personality test on Facebook asked users to choose qualities like “worries about things,” “trusts others,” and “gets angry all the time” to describe themselves. To take the test, a Facebook user agreed to download an app. The app gave Cambridge Analytica access to the user’s location, birth date, and likes on Facebook. It also gave the company access to information in the user’s friends’ accounts, which is how so many people were affected.
How did Cambridge Analytica use the information?
The company compared the information with voter records. The aim was to identify what types of messages a voter would respond to based on his or her personality. Armed with information such as what a person might like or fear, the company sent political messages meant to influence voters.
What happens now?
Facebook says it will investigate thousands of apps on its site to find out how they use and collect data. Facebook will label political ads and clearly state who pays for them. It will also verify the identity and location of people who manage pages on the site. Still, many Facebook users have closed accounts.
On April 10 and 11, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about the breach. Lawmakers also grilled him about the spread of fake news and Russian meddling on the site during the 2016 presidential election.
“I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” Zuckerberg said. He apologized for the data breach. Florida senator Bill Nelson warned that if the company didn’t fix things, “none of us are going to have any privacy.”