Business Technology

Saturday 15 December 2018

Irish Data Protection Commissioner to probe Facebook’s 'oversight' of political targeting on the platform

Pressure is continuing to mount on the social media giant

Mark Zuckerberg.
Mark Zuckerberg.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The Irish Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, is to probe Facebook’s “oversight” of political targeting on the platform and issue guidance on certain data practices following revelations of political data harvesting on the social media platform.

“The Irish DPC is following up with Facebook Ireland in relation to what forms of active oversight of app developers and third parties that utilise their platform is in place with a view to ensuring it is effective,” said a spokesman for Ms Dixons’s office.

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon

“The micro-targeting of social media users with political advertisements and sponsored stories remains an ongoing issue today. In the absence of laws specifically regulating such political targeting online, the Irish DPC intends to issue guidance to users in terms of how they can trace why they are receiving certain advertisements and stories on social media, how they can mute or turn off receiving advertisements from those sources and how they can amend their ad preferences to control the types of ads they are served.”

The move comes as international controversy continues to grow following reports a British-owned political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, sought to influence the 2016 US presidential election by mining the personal information of up to 50m people in the US.

The revelations, jointly reported by the Observer, The Guardian and Channel 4 News, have led to calls for a tightening of rules on how Facebook is used by political operatives.

However, a spokesman for the data protection office said that rules concerning how data is used on Facebook have been updated since the events surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal took place in 2014.

“The issue of friends’ data being harvested when a Facebook user engaged with an app on Facebook was resolved by Facebook in May 2014 when access to friends data was restricted by a platform upgrade,” said the DPC spokesman.

“This followed a 2012 recommendation by DPC Ireland on foot of its re-audit of Facebook Ireland in relation to access to friends data. Access is now restricted for app developers to, at most, friends lists and generally only to in-app friends lists.”

A spokeswoman for Facebook Ireland said the controversy involving the UK data firm Cambridge Analytica primarily affected US Facebook users’ data.

Read more: Why is everyone so worried about Facebook right now?

Independent.ie understands that less than 1pc of the 270,000 accounts involved in the Cambridge Analytica data-mining affair were European, with less than 0.1pc being Irish.

Last night, Facebook promised to “aggressively” conduct an audit that would involve “complete access” to the “servers and systems” of Cambridge Analytica and the researchers it employed during the controversy.

The move comes as the marketing and political targeting techniques of campaigning organisations online come under greater scrutiny.

Some campaigners in the upcoming abortion referendum have voiced concern about unaccountable sources using social media companies such as Facebook to try to influence voters in the referendum.

UK authorities have also begun to ramp up investigations as to whether Facebook was used by foreign political interests to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK.

However, Facebook said:

“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,” said a company spokeswoman.

“We actually reject a significant number of apps through this process. Kogan’s app would not be permitted access to detailed friends’ data today.”

Cambridge Analytica has denied the allegations levelled against the company.

In a statement issued on Tuesday it said it deleted Facebook data it derived from another company in "good faith" when it became known it did not comply with privacy regulations.

"This Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign; personality targeted advertising was not carried out for this client either," the company said. 

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