Much Ado About Facebookistan

Cambridge Analytica; Facebook's long legacy of lax data protections & looking the other way; and more.


  • As Channel 4 News points out in their reporting on Cambridge Analytica, it’s terribly interesting that a company that specializes in psychometric targeting and data analytics has a sideline in age-old tactics like honeytraps and bribes.

  • A year ago yesterday, Textifire reported on the U.S. State Department contract awarded to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, the SCL Group.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Internal disagreements at Facebook have led to the departure of Alex Stamos, the chief information security officer, who will leave in August, Nicole Perlroth, Sheera Frenkel, and Scott Shane report for The New York Times. Stamos’ day-to-day responsibilities were reassigned back in December, after he supported being more open about Russian interference in the social network, current and former employees told the Times. The company, according to one early investor, is in denial about the damage they have accrued over the past year. “I told them, ‘Your business is based on trust, and you’re losing trust,’” Roger McNamee told the Times. “They were treating it as a P.R. problem, when it’s a business problem. I couldn’t believe these guys I once knew so well had gotten so far off track.”

  • Yesterday the company sent a team of investigators to Cambridge Analytica’s London office, but they had to stand down on the request of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, which is conducting its own investigation, according to Facebook.

    “We remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information,” the company stated. “We also want to be clear that today when developers create apps that ask for certain information from people, we conduct a robust review to identify potential policy violations and to assess whether the app has a legitimate use for the data. We actually reject a significant number of apps through this process. Kogan’s app would not be permitted access to detailed friends’ data today.”

  • It’s a bit rich for Facebook to be all up on its high horse without acknowledging and apologizing for lax protections for user privacy in the past. Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm report for The Washington Post on how other developers, like the makers of FarmVille and Tinder, and consultants for the Obama 2012 campaign, also hoovered up data about Facebook users and their friends for similar relationship and preference mapping.

  • A former platform operations manager at Facebook claims the company intentionally looked the other way as companies like Cambridge Analytica and others lifted vast amounts of information about Facebook users, and then did what they wished with it with zero oversight, Paul Lewis reports for The Guardian.

  • Sen. Ron Wyden sent a very long list of questions to Facebook, and has asked for answers by April 13. Questions about his questions he directs to staff member Chris Soghoian.

  • Jacob Metcalf and Casey Fiesler argue in Slate that the best way to prevent another Cambridge Analytica is to give researchers more access to data.

  • Writing for Bloomberg, Cass Sunstein also speaks up in defense of data collection, arguing, “let’s not overreact. Authorized use of that data can do a great deal of good.” After spending a majority of the column villainizing Cambridge Analytica (fair!), he points in brief to several examples of data-for-good type projects, without stating a commitment to the importance of securing informed consent from the people whose data is being collected and used. He also conflates studies of public figures (“the Pew Research Center has used Facebook data to see how often, and exactly when, members of Congress directly express disagreement with the other party”) with that of private individuals, and finally compares Facebook data to government data (“The U.S. government has faced, and solved, similar problems: Data.gov discloses a great deal of information, with more than 230,000 data sets involving health, safety, travel, energy, and the environment. Available apps, made possible by that information, are helping people to save money and to avoid health risks.”) again without addressing steps government would take to anonymize that data. All of this, plus the disclosure that in the past year, Sunstein has worked as a consultant to Facebook, “but not on any issue related in any way to the topic here.” Not related in any way to Facebook data? How is that even possible?

  • Anne Applebaum suggests in her Washington Post column that Zuckerberg should spend $45 billion on undoing the damage Facebook has inflicted on democracies, although she admits to not quite knowing how he can do that.

  • Slate’s April Glaser considers the argument that Facebook should stop operating in Myanmar/Burma if it’s fueling ethnic divisions and stoking violence, but some people on the ground say that could do as much harm as good, underscoring how complicated the situation is and how unprepared Facebook is to respond to the challenges it poses.

  • Life Outside of Facebookistan: A self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Arizona, Daisuke Wakabayashi reports for The New York Times, thought to be the first pedestrian fatality by self-driving tech.

  • San Francisco chief innovation officer Jay Nath is stepping down to lead the Startup in Residence program he helped architect in his city government position, Theo Douglas and Zack Quaintance report for GovTech. His deputy Krista Canellakis will replace him.

  • Apply: The Knight Foundation is looking for applications for the Emerging City Champions fellowship for projects that will enhance public space, urban mobility, or civic engagement. Learn more here.