Facebook data breach: Why is Mark Zuckerberg appearing before Congress?

Silicon Valley entrepreneur to testify to US House Commerce Committee on 11 April over Cambridge Analytica affair

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 05 April 2018 14:44 BST
Mark Zuckerberg on Cambridge Analytica: 'I'm really sorry'

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will appear before the US House Commerce Committee on 11 April to explain his company's part in the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.

The hearing will be broadcast on C-SPAN and be available to stream online on the channel's website.

The story broke on 17 March that Cambridge Analytica, a "strategic communications" consultancy, had harvested information from the profiles of 50m Facebook users - now thought to be closer to 87m - and sold it on to the Donald Trump campaign for use in the micro-targeting of swing voters in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.

The Vote Leave campaign pushing for Britain to quit the European Union are also understood to have employed the company's services prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data from Global Science Research (GSR), a firm run by academic Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who had been carrying out a personality test using a third-party app called This is Your Digital Life that required its 270,000 paid participants to provide access to their Facebook pages.

Doing so allowed Dr Kogan to view not only their profiles but those of their wider friendship networks as part of a study of "psychographics", the mapping of an individual's personality based on their behaviour online and the posts they like and share.

Cambridge Analytica allegedly then passed this on to Trump's chief campaign strategist Steve Bannon for use in identifying undecided members of the electorate with a view to persuading them to vote for the Republican candidate.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie's story was published in The Observer and The New York Times and the furore that followed saw Facebook's share price tumble and inspired users around the world to delete their accounts in anger at the misuse of their personal information.

Facebook responded by suspending Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), stating that "protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do" and accusing Dr Kogan of lying about his app’s true purpose and of failing to abide by the social network's rules on obtaining data.

“By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie... he violated our platform policies," the company said in a statement.

“When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed.

"Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.

“Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made.”

Advertisers including US software company Mozilla and Germany's Commerzbank withdrew from the platform in the week that followed while the UK's advertising industry trade body ISBA, representing more than 3,000 brands, told Facebook "enough is enough" and demanded reassurances.

After several days of silence, Mr Zuckerberg appeared on CNN to apologise and first volunteered to testify before Congress, conceding: “We made mistakes”.

The company's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said the site would be “open to regulation” as it seeks to rebuild public trust over the controversy, which followed long-running accusations that Russian bots had been engaged in the spread of "fake news" and misinformation to discredit Trump's Democratic rival Hillary Clinton across its pages during the election campaign.

Damian Collins MP, chairman of Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, called on Zuckerberg to appear before British ministers too and recalled Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica's CEO, since suspended pending an independent investigation into the affair.

Damian Collins repeats call for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence to fake new inquiry

Mr Nix had answered select committee questions on 27 February in which he denied the company received data from GSR or worked with Facebook, "inconsistencies" on which Mr Collins is now seeking clarification.

Mr Zuckerberg reiterated his apology over the "breach of trust" with a series of full-page advertisements across British newspapers on Sunday 25 March.

"We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t, we don’t deserve it," he wrote.

Facebook has since published revised versions of its terms of service and data use policy, stressing: "We don't sell any of your information to anyone, and we never will."

The congressional hearing the tech entrepreneur will face next week seeks to interrogate precisely how Facebook plans to use and safeguard consumers' personal information going forward.

“This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” said Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden and member Frank Pallone in a joint statement.

The US Senate's commerce and judiciary committees have likewise requested that Mr Zuckerberg appear in front of them while the US Federal Trade Commission is carrying out an investigation of its own into the effect of the data mining scandal on consumers.

Facebook executives, along with their counterparts from Google and Twitter, previously appeared on Capitol Hill on 31 October 2017 to testify about their respective sites' vulnerability to "fake news" and manipulation by outside forces.

Facebook revealed in that session that 126m Americans could potentially have been exposed to propaganda originating from Russian "troll farm" the Internet Research Agency at the height of campaigning between June 2015 and August 2017.

The site, along with Twitter and YouTube, also appeared before the Senate on 17 January this year to answer questions on the steps they were taking to monitor and censor extremist content and hate speech.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in