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Facebook and London-based Cambridge Analytica have come under intense media, regulatory and legal scrutiny after a whistleblower alleged improper practices regarding collecting and sharing user data.
Former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie claims the firm purchased large amounts of data from 270,000 people using a personality quiz on Facebook as well as the data of 50 million mainly US Facebook users that was collected without their explicit consent through their friend networks.
Wylie claims the Facebook data was used to profile people and send pro-Trump material to them in an attempt to influence the voting in the 2016 presidential election.
In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched an investigation, issued a demand for access to records and data in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, asked Facebook’s auditors to stand down, and applied for a warrant to obtain information and access to systems.
“Our investigation into the use of personal data for political campaigns includes the acquisition and use of Facebook data,” said information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
“This is a complex and far-reaching investigation for my office and any criminal or civil enforcement actions arising from it will be pursued vigorously.”
The ICO investigation aims to determine whether private data was illicitly exploited for political campaigns, not only in the US but also in the UK as Cambridge Analytica reportedly also used its influence during the EU referendum.
The ICO is also investigating whether the firm held on to the data after Facebook ordered that it be deleted.
Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica has suspended CEO Alexander Nix after Channel 4 News secretly filmed him suggesting ways his company could discredit politicians online.
The company has also distanced itself from his remarks, saying they “do not represent the values or operations of the firm”, reports the BBC.
Read more about Facebook and privacy
In the US, Facebook has been ordered to appear before Congress, the company has lost $60bn of its stock market value after its shares fell for a second day on Tuesday, closing down 2.5%, and the hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending on Twitter amid growing anger and concern about the use of the Facebook data for political purposes.
Acton left WhatsApp earlier this year to start his own foundation and last month he invested $50m into Signal, an independent alternative to WhatsApp.
Facebook claims the data was obtained legally and said in a statement: “We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”
The allegations have prompted fresh calls for Facebook to do more to make it easier for users to protect their privacy. Security industry commentators have also urged Facebook users to disable the option to allow friends’ apps to collect information from their accounts, which, counterintuitively, is found under the Apps menu rather than under privacy settings.
According to independent security consultant Graham Cluley, the only way to reduce your exposure is to refuse to play Facebook’s game and not be a member of the site.
“If you can’t bring yourself to leave, at the very least lock down your privacy settings and reduce the level of information that you share,” he wrote in a blog post. “Finally, it’s worth saying, Facebook isn’t the only website that collects vast amounts of information about its users and exploits it in this fashion.”