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Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica flap triggers FTC investigation

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Facebook’s troubles aren’t going away.

The Federal Trade Commission said on Monday that it has opened an investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices. As reported last week, the FTC is concerned whether Facebook violated the terms of a 2011 consent decree. The decree mandated that the social media company notify users and obtain their consent to share information with third parties.

It’s just the latest shoe to drop for Facebook’s headache over its data breach to Cambridge Analytica. The social network is in hot water for letting data on 50 million users get into the hands of the data analytics firm, which was hired by the Trump campaign for the 2016 presidential election. The FTC stepping in signals more scrutiny by the government over Facebook’s actions.

“The FTC takes very seriously recent press reports raising substantial concerns about the privacy practices of Facebook,” Tom Pahl, acting director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, said in a statement. “Today, the FTC is confirming that it has an open non-public investigation into these practices.”

The misuse of the data, which was collected in 2013 through a personality quiz called “thisisyourdigitallife,” shed a light on how poorly Facebook has handled your personal information. While only 300,000 people took the quiz, the app was able to grab data from an extended network of friends, a valuable trove of information that Cambridge Analytica used to great effect with its targeted political ads.

Zuckerberg apologized to the social network’s 2.2 billion users and said he’s finally doing something about the app exploit. He vowed to investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information and “conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity.”

But Zuckerberg faces calls to testify before both the US and US governments. While on an interview with CNN, Zuckerberg said he would testify before Congress — with some caveats.

“So what we try to do is send the person at Facebook who will have the most knowledge about what Congress is trying to learn,” he said. “So if that’s me, then I am happy to go.”

Zuckerberg went on an apology tour last week following five days of silence on the matter. The lack of a response from the CEO spurred hashtags like #whereszuck and #deletefacebook, which companies like Tesla and Space X and individuals like Cher taking real action.

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How Cambridge Analytica works and turned ‘likes’ into political tool

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How Cambridge analytica works

The algorithm at the heart of the Facebook data breach sounds almost too dystopian to be real. It trawls through the most apparently trivial, throwaway postings –the “likes” users dole out as they browse the site – to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma. So exactly how cambridge analytica works and why it turned like in to a real world political tool.

A few dozen “likes” can give a strong prediction of which party a user will vote for, reveal their gender and whether their partner is likely to be a man or woman, provide powerful clues about whether their parents stayed together throughout their childhood and predict their vulnerability to substance abuse. And it can do all this without delving into personal messages, posts, status updates, photos or all the other information Facebook holds.

how cambridge analytica works

Some results may sound more like the result of updated online sleuthing than sophisticated data analysis; “liking” a political campaign page is little different from pinning a poster in a window.

But five years ago psychology researchers showed that far more complex traits could be deduced from patterns invisible to a human observer scanning through profiles. Just a few apparently random “likes” could form the basis for disturbingly complex character assessments.

When users liked “curly fries” and Sephora cosmetics, this was said to give clues to intelligence; Hello Kitty likes indicated political views; “Being confused after waking up from naps” was linked to sexuality. These were just some of the unexpected but consistent correlations noted in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in 2013. “Few users were associated with ‘likes’ explicitly revealing their attributes. For example, less than 5% of users labelled as gay were connected with explicitly gay groups, such as No H8 Campaign,” the peer-reviewed research found.

The researchers, Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell and Thore Graepel, saw the dystopian potential of the study and raised privacy concerns. At the time Facebook “likes” were public by default.


Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’ How Cambridge Analytica works.

“The predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behaviour may have considerable negative implications, because it can easily be applied to large numbers of people without their individual consent and without them noticing,” they said.

“Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even your Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation or political views that an individual may not have intended to share.”

To some, that may have sounded like a business opportunity. By early 2014, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix had signed a deal with one of Kosinski’s Cambridge colleagues, lecturer Aleksandr Kogan, for a private commercial venture, separate from Kogan’s duties at the university, but echoing Kosinski’s work.

The academic had developed a Facebook app which featured a personality quiz, and Cambridge Analytica paid for people to take it, advertising on platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The app recorded the results of each quiz, collected data from the taker’s Facebook account – and, crucially, extracted the data of their Facebook friends as well.

The results were paired with each quiz-taker’s Facebook data to seek out patterns and build an algorithm to predict results for other Facebook users. Their friends’ profiles provided a testing ground for the formula and, more crucially, a resource that would make the algorithm politically valuable.

How Cambridge Analytica works

To be eligible to take the test the user had to have a Facebook account and be a US voter, so tens of millions of the profiles could be matched to electoral rolls. From an initial trial of 1,000 “seeders”, the researchers obtained 160,000 profiles – or about 160 per person. Eventually a few hundred thousand paid test-takers would be the key to data from a vast swath of US voters.

It was extremely attractive. It could also be deemed illicit, primarily because Kogan did not have permission to collect or use data for commercial purposes. His permission from Facebook to harvest profiles in large quantities was specifically restricted to academic use. And although the company at the time allowed apps to collect friend data, it was only for use in the context of Facebook itself, to encourage interaction. Selling data on, or putting it to other purposes, – including Cambridge Analytica’s political marketing – was strictly barred.

It also appears likely the project was breaking British data protection laws, which ban sale or use of personal data without consent. That includes cases where consent is given for one purpose but data is used for another.

The paid test-takers signed up to T&Cs, including collection of their own data, and Facebook’s default terms allowed their friends’ data to be collected by an app, unless their privacy settings allowed this. But none of them agreed to their data possibly being used to create a political marketing tool or to it being placed in a vast campaign database.

How Cambridge Analytica works

Kogan maintains everything he did was legal and says he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.

Facebook denies this was a data breach. Vice-president Paul Grewal said: “Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules.”

Graphic to show key players in Cambridge Analytica story

The scale of the data collection Cambridge Analytica paid for was so large it triggered an automatic shutdown of the app’s ability to harvest profiles. But Kogan told a colleague he “spoke with an engineer” to get the restriction lifted and, within a day or two, work resumed.

Within months, Kogan and Cambridge Analytica had a database of millions of US voters that had its own algorithm to scan them, identifying likely political persuasions and personality traits. They could then decide who to target and craft their messages that was likely to appeal to them – a political approach known as “micro-targeting”.

Facebook announced on Friday that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and Kogan from the platform pending information over misuse of data related to this project.

Facebook denies that the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by GSR and Cambridge Analytica was a data breach. It said in a statement that Kogan “gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels” but “did not subsequently abide by our rules” because he passed the information onto third parties.

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Twitter briefly shut down @Bitcoin, sparking wild conspiracy theories

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Twitter suspended the @Bitcoin Twitter account, which is run by an anonymous user, over the weekend. The account was briefly taken over by a user who claimed to be Turkish, then a user who claimed to be Russian, before apparently being restored to its previous owner Monday afternoon.

“We do not comment on individual accounts so nothing to share,” a Twitter spokesperson said when asked about the suspension. “That’s some bullshit if you ask me,” the user behind @Bitcoin tweeted. “I’d like to know why my account was given to someone else, and then when it’s reinstated I’m missing 750,000 of my followers.”

The @Bitcoin account had more than 821,000 followers when it was suspended. Those followers disappeared, but it appears that Twitter is slowly restoring them.

The mysterious suspension naturally stoked conspiracy theories in the bitcoin community. The @Bitcoin account is supportive of Bitcoin Cash, also known as Bcash. Bitcoin Cash was founded by a group of developers, miners, and other members of the community who split off in August 2017, duplicating the bitcoin blockchain and establishing a new cryptocurrency, after a dispute over how to address the growing network’s scaling issues.

The relationship between Bitcoin Cash and Bitcoin, or Bitcoin Core, is acrimonious. Some Bitcoin Cash supporters suspected that their enemies on the Bitcoin Core side caused @Bitcoin’s suspension by falsely reporting it to Twitter for spam or harassment.

Some said they believed the account had been previously been hijacked by Bitcoin Cash supporter Roger Ver. The account, which was registered in August 2011 according to its Twitter bio, only began tweeting about Bitcoin Cash in January. At the time, @Bitcoin tweeted, “The ownership of this account has not changed hands. I became busy with other things, much has changed since then and I’ve decided to take a more active role in the community once again.” Ver claims he has no connection to the account, and that it “is owned by someone involved in Bitcoin since 2009.”

“I’d love to hear a public explanation from @twittersupport about why #bitcoin competitor #LightningNetwork investor @jack disabled this account, gave it to someone else, only to return it in the face of public backlash with 750,000 fewer followers,” the @Bitcoin account tweeted after being restored.

Some felt that the @Bitcoin account shouldn’t be used by anyone. “Twitter is a platform for people to promote their own agenda,” tweeted Nick Tomaino, a cryptocurrency venture capital investor. “Only right that @bitcoin stays inactive/suspended.”

Twitter started blocking cryptocurrency-related ads at the end of March, but confirmed it does not have content rules specific to cryptocurrencies.

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