The year 2018 was going to be the year Facebook would do things differently. Under intense scrutiny from governments and their regulators over fake news, hate speech and political manipulation on his platform, Mark Zuckerberg vowed to fix things.

Then, last weekend, The New York Times along with the Guardian and Observer and Channel 4 in the UK broke a story that shattered Zuckerberg's PR campaign: Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm employed by US President Donald Trump's election campaign, harvested the personal information of more than 50 million American Facebook users, with the goal to create targeted political advertising to influence voter behaviour.

The Facebook people are acting all surprised. All hurt, like they're the victims. I have to laugh.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, director, Center for Media and Citizenship, University of Virginia

The Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower willing to go on record was Christopher Wylie, the firm's former director of research. Although the Cambridge Analytica story had been floating around media channels for a couple of years, Wylie's insight into the scandal blew the issue wide open to reveal the extent of the privacy breach. 

A Facebook app had been designed by a Cambridge Analytica contracted data scientist enlisting willing Facebook users to partake in a paid survey which also allowed access to their personal data. What users were not aware of was how the app would also access the personal data of all of their friends who had not downloaded the app, partaken in the survey or agreed to the collection of their data. 

In effect, what was a 270,000 participant engagement resulted in exposing the private information of 50 million Americans, enabling tailored political ads to target the appropriate audience, benefiting the client: presidential candidate Donald Trump.

"We should be shocked about this, but we shouldn't be surprised," says Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. "Scholars who have been watching Facebook have been raising alarms about this since 2010, but nobody was listening. Facebook encouraged it, this was Facebook policy."

While Mark Zuckerberg's apologetic response did little to placate many who are part of the ongoing furore, the real question is: Did Facebook really care to do the right thing?

"The big question that regulators are going to be asking Facebook is, why didn't you tell us in 2015? And why didn't you ban Cambridge Analytica at that point?" says Financial Times reporter Hannah Kuchler. "Because they actually only banned Cambridge Analytica from Facebook just as this story was coming out last week."

This story sheds light on Facebook's business model of mass surveillance in order to make a profit off of users' information and how Cambridge Analytica is only the tip of the privacy breach iceberg. 

Contributors:
Hannah Kuchler, Silicon Valley correspondent, FT
Siva Vaidhyanathan, director, Center for Media and Citizenship, the University of Virginia
Ben Tarnoff, Tech columnist, Guardian and cofounder of Logic Magazine
Silkie Carlo, director, Big Brother Watch

Source: Al Jazeera News