Mark Zuckerberg’s humdrum promises to secure Facebook users’ data sound convincing, but are they really in place? Our analysis

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New Delhi | March 23, 2018 5:40 PM

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is caught up in a turmoil that hampers the company's reputation as a popular social media website. So, what did he do to save it and what he didn't?

Facebook apps usually ask the users access to their names, profile photo, and email addresses

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg found himself deadlocked following the revelation that a partner app shared data with its client that helped influence the US Presidential Elections in 2016. The app developer who stealthily harvested and shared the data of 50 million Facebook users with UK-based Cambridge Analytica is now reportedly saying that it made Facebook aware of the change in his app’s policies that don’t bring him or his app in the purview of policy violation. Aleksandr Kogan, who has been highly criticised by Facebook for keeping the data after the latter’s request to erase it, has now spoken up, calling out Facebook’s story a ‘fabrication’.

According to an email that Kogan sent to Cambridge University, obtained by Bloomberg, Facebook was notified of the changes that he made to his app called GSRApp in 2014 including the privacy terms from ‘academic’ to ‘commercial’. This means that the app was initially meant to survey some Facebook users who agreed to share their friends’ data via their profiles for a study. The app employed a programme called Qualtrics to gather information based on the survey that the users took. However, in 2014 the app’s privacy policies were updated to make it commercial, which Kogan claims to have communicated to Facebook that did not object.

Read more: Cambridge Analytica row: What’s wrong with Facebook and can Mark Zuckerberg fix it?

Facebook, however, has repeatedly said that Logan violated the company’s terms and continued accessing user data and then lied about it. Kogan’s claims contradict what Facebook says, making the matter more complex until the regulators find out what exactly happened and whose story is actually true. Facebook in 2014 made changes to the company rules wherein it said that the apps will only be able to access data of a user’s friends if they authorise so. This may sound like a minor concern, however, the case involving the data misuse by Cambridge Analytica is outright worrying.

The change in the policies was announced by Facebook to lessen the access for third-party apps that store users’ data. Zuckerberg in his lengthy Facebook post assured that he will take strict measures to curb the additional access to third-party apps, but this is something he has been saying as a standard reply to all such cases where the users’ private data is in question and at stake. However, it is not clear at the moment whether this applies to all the apps associated with Facebook, including many popular apps and games, or just the rogue ones. Interestingly, these apps, after gaining access to the Facebook profile, begin storing data and there’s no way to track whether this data is removed after a user leaves a particular app.

Read more: How to delete your Facebook account permanently after Cambridge Analytica data misuse row

The larger picture here is the question of data safety that Facebook proclaims everywhere including its privacy policies that are reiterated by Zuckerberg in all his interviews over the Cambridge Analytica row. Let’s say, you gave access to an app with your Facebook data but didn’t use for over three months – the app’s developer will lose access to your data post this period. The only thing that remains sceptical here is whether the data is removed from the developer’s end and when this really begins happening.

Facebook apps usually ask the users access to their names, profile photo, and email addresses. However, there are plenty of apps that go beyond this data access boundary and ask the users further details such as date of birth, home address, gender, etc. The developers of these apps are required to obtain an approval from Facebook where they sign a contract to safeguard the data until a user revokes the access. While this contract binds them to gain super controls over a user’s data after the permission, it doesn’t really mention whether they are forced to delete the data they currently possess.

Facebook is now stepping up its efforts to ensure more security for users’ data, said Zuckerberg. The company will highlight to users what apps are gaining access to their data with the help of a tool available in the News Feed. The tool will offer them a look at all the apps, the data they use, and option to revoke the access. These options are available on the platform even now but most of the users aren’t familiar with them. Facebook will also increase the bug bounty programme rewards that encourage programmers to find bugs in the apps in exchange for monetary or equivalent rewards.

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