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Facebook under scrutiny once again as federal agencies join Cambridge Analytica probe

A federal investigation of Facebook’s role in sharing of users’ data with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica has expanded its scope as multiple federal agencies join the US Department of Justice to probe the statements and actions of the tech giant. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have now joined the investigation, reported the Washington Post.

The Justice Department, FBI, SEC as well as FTC will look into Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica and how much Facebook knew about the sharing of personal data of 80 million Americans with the Trump-linked firm.

In 2015, Facebook discovered that the firm had obtained data of 80 million Americans to create voter profiles. Yet Facebook didn’t disclose that information to the public until March 2018, on the eve of the publication of news reports about the matter. Cambridge Analytica played a key role in mapping out the behaviour of voters in the run-up to the 2016 US election and helped the Brexit campaign during United Kingdom’s EU referendum. In June 2016, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to take over its data operations.

Related: How 50 million Facebook users were profiled and influenced: A low down on Cambridge Analytica

The questioning will revolve around what Facebook knew three years ago but did not disclose to its users or investors. The investigation will also scrutinise testimonies of Facebook officials to the US Senate, including Mark Zuckerburg’s statements and responses. “The fact that the Justice Department, the FBI, the SEC and the FTC are sitting down together does raise serious concerns,” said David Vladeck, former director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and now a Georgetown Law professor told the Washington Post.

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The expanding probe may hamper the tech giant which is trying to limp back to normalcy after two years of scandals, beginning with its dissemination of Russian misinformation on its platform.

61 companies got access to Facebook data

In the most recent development, it has emerged that 61 companies got extended access to user Facebook users’ data and, in some cases, their friends’ data. These firms had access to this information even if users’ friends had strict privacy settings, breaking Facebook’s own rules governing such data use. To tighten user privacy, Facebook had introduced a more restrictive API in 2014 to limit developers’ access to user data. But the 61 firms, including Snap (which owns Snapchat), music service Spotify, social media management service Hootsuite, and rideshare app Uber, got almost six extra months to be compliant. American streaming app Saavn, which just got acquired by Reliance Jio, is one of the companies that got extended access. Read our full report here.

Recent developments in the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal

  • In May Facebook suspended around 200 apps from its platform following an initial review of apps that had access to large amounts of user data. The company announced on its blog that it has reviewed “thousands of apps” with access to Facebook user data and suspended 200 of them “pending a thorough investigation into whether they did in fact misuse any data.” The suspension of 200 apps doesn’t necessarily mean each of them is a Cambridge Analytica-style scandal; rather these 200 apps will be subject to a “thorough investigation into whether they did in fact misuse any data.”
  • According to news reports in June, Facebook had data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 hardware manufacturers including Apple. Facebook had reportedly shared user data from the platform with Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung among several others — during the last decade. Through the partnerships, the social media company allowed the device companies access to the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent.
  • Soon after reports about data partnerships with device makers emerged, the government of India in June sought an explanation from Facebook over reports of the latter’s data sharing partnerships with phone makers. According to a report on the Economic Times the social media company was given time till June 20 to respond to the notice issued by the government. In a statement, the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) said that recently there have been media reports claiming that Facebook has agreements which are allowing phone and other device manufacturers’ access to its users’ personal information. This included data of users’ friends, without explicit consent. Read our full report here.
  • In April, Facebook revealed that data belonging to 562,455 Indian Facebook users may have been accessed by British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The India government has ever since cautiously watched Facebook in terms of its participation in elections and data gathering in partnership with device manufacturers.

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