If Facebook thought that 2020 might be the year that the company manages to shake off its disastrous news cycle and start making confident steps into the future, it’s going to have to think again. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has come back to haunt the social media giant yet again — and this time, it may prove to cost them more money in sanctions than ever before.
If you somehow managed to avoid the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that dominated global news headlines several years ago, here’s a quick recap.
In 2018, a marketing company called; Cambridge Analytica was found to have used Facebook to acquire the personal information of thousands – perhaps even millions — of Facebook users, and use that information to tailor political advertising messages (many of which were misleading) to the people whose data had been harvested.
None of the Facebook users involved had ever given consent for their information to be used in this way or passed on to third parties, and some people feel that the misuse of the data contributed to the election of Donald Trump in the United States of America, and the decision of the British electorate to leave the European Union.
After the scandal came to light, Facebook was forced to take the blame for their data falling into the hands of Cambridge Analytica in the first place. The company was found to have failed to protect the information that its users had entrusted it with, and a shame-faced Mark Zuckerberg was eventually called upon to testify in front of Congress in the United States of America. Millions of users deleted their Facebook accounts, and the value of the company plummeted by billions of dollars. As scandals go, it was as damaging as any in recent corporate memory.
Facebook has gone to great lengths in an attempt to rehabilitate its image since then. It’s taken out television adverts to tell people that the company has changed its ways. It’s also invested in new products and new industries. Facebook Libra is still trying to gain acceptance into the cryptocurrency market.
High 5 Casino, the company’s officially-approved UK Online Slots provider, has just over one million users. If the company were able to gain a foothold in the casino market and rival specialist online slots websites, it would have a stake in a global industry worth billions of dollars.
As many people who’ve played and lost money playing online slots might tell you, though, sometimes bad luck has a way of following you. Cambridge Analytica is Facebook’s biggest bad luck story ever, and it hasn’t gone away just yet.
The latest development in the saga has happened in Australia, and relates to an app called ‘This Is Your Digital Life.’ If the claims made about the app are true, it’s illegally harvested data from the Facebook profiles of thousands of Australians, and passed that data on to third party marketing companies. ‘This Is Your Digital Life’ is, as those who have followed the story already know, a product created and owned by Cambridge Analytica.
The next part of the story is very familiar — the data then ended up in the hands of advertisers who used it to tailor and direct political advertising to unsuspecting users. It’s the same story as the one we saw in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, and it’s likely to have the same implications for Facebook in Australia as it did in both of those countries. At the time of writing, it’s thought that the digital privacy of up to three hundred thousand Australian nationals may have been breached.
The case, which was lodged with the appropriate authorities in Australia on Monday 9th March, alleges that Facebook has committed ‘serious and repeated’ breaches of Australian privacy and data protection laws, including misrepresenting the reason for the collection of data and distributing the data without consent.
Worryingly for the affected parties, the amount of data collected and distributed is significant. As well as surface data like the names, locations, birth dates, and friends lists of the users, it’s claimed that private Facebook messages were also scraped from the accounts and sent to Cambridge Analytica.
In fairness to Facebook, it’s important to note that these offenses aren’t alleged to have been committed since the original scandal broke elsewhere. The data breaches happened between 2014 and 2015, but authorities are only filing to sue now because they believe Facebook hasn’t co-operated with their inquiry. They say that Facebook has failed to confirm how many Australian users were affected (or specifically which users), and also claim that Facebook’s privacy controls at the time were designed in a way that made it impossible for users to consent to their data being used, or prevent their data from being distributed if they didn’t wish for third parties to have access to it.
Furthermore, the Australian authorities believe that Facebook could reasonably have informed users about the data breach in 2015, but chose not to do so.
At this stage, it’s unclear exactly how many separate breaches of the law Facebook is being charged with other than the fact that multiple charges are to be considered. Each separate breach could result in a maximum fine of USD$1.7 million. In the event that the court decides that all three hundred thousand affected users, the maximum fine could be more than five hundred billion dollars.
In reality, it’s extremely unlikely that a fine so large would even be considered, but given Facebook’s prior admission of wrongdoing in the case of Cambridge Analytica and the resultant likelihood of their guilt in this case, it’s hard not to picture a scenario in which Facebook doesn’t end up paying Australian authorities several hundred million dollars in reparations. This would put it between the UK, which fined the company half a million pounds sterling for the same offense, and the United States of America, which fined them five billion dollars.
Very few companies have the financial resources that Facebook does, and the company has the means to pay a multi-billion dollar fine should they lose in court and be ordered to do so. It would, however, send their stock price tumbling yet again, and heap more pressure onto the shoulders of Mark Zuckerberg.
Given that he’s already made a personal fortune from the company and must be becoming tired of the constant pressure and scrutiny he finds himself under, there must surely be a temptation to step away and let someone else steer the ship.