Facebook Announces Restrictions on Data Access, Admits Number of Accounts Breached Closer to 87 Million

Technology

Facebook, in announcing significant changes to its information-sharing features with third-party app developers, has announced that up to 87 million Facebook users – mostly in the U.S. – have had their information inappropriately harvested by political data research firm Cambridge Analytica. The number was previously reported as 50 million by the company.

Cambridge Analytica uses psychometrics, the study of human characteristics to predict human behavior. Information gleaned from things like personality tests, help researchers create algorithms that can help predict people’s reactions to online messaging, and ultimately, influence them.

The firm worked with the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

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Last month it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica used personal information taken without authorization to build an operation that profiled U.S. voters in order to target them with political messaging and ultimately, influence their votes. Working with Cambridge University Academic Aleksandr Kogan, and an app Kogan built, Cambridge Analytica was able to access and record user data from tens of millions of Facebook users through a small fraction of users who were paid to take personality tests.

Kogan’s app not only captured information on the paid respondents but because of lax Facebook information-access policies, was also able to capture information on their friends as well. The breach was discovered in 2015 but Facebook did not notify affected users, nor admit it publicly, until widespread media reports earlier this year.

The firm has been struggling to get ahead of a seemingly unending wave of bad publicity for the past several months.

“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a rare public statement last month. “I know it takes longer to fix all these issues than we’d like, but I promise you we’ll work through this and build a better service over the long term,” he added.

The firm announced more than half a dozen policy revisions aimed at restricting the type and amount of information third-party apps can access. Apps will no longer be able to access personal information from users, such as religious or political views, for example, nor will they be able to access member lists of groups. The company has also disabled a feature that allowed apps to scrape public information from users by searching for them on the platform with only a phone number or email address. “Malicious actors have also abused these features,” the company wrote in a blog post yesterday, “so we have now disabled this feature.”

Facebook’s recent troubles as well as its reaction to them have drawn the ire of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. It was revealed this week that Zuckerberg, usually reluctant to speak publicly or answer questions on Facebook’s operations, will testify before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees, as well as the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week.

“This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” said Reps. Greg Walden and Frank Pallone, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Commerce Committee in a statement.

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