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Explained: the Release of Facebook Emails and the Implications


Mark Zuckerburg giving his testimony to the United States Congress in April 2018, is now facing a new scandal about Facebook’s harvesting of user data.[1]

On Wednesday, British MPs authorised the release of internal emails sent between staff at Facebook, despite the ruling of a US judge to seal off the emails. They represent the latest in a series of scandals which have caused increasingly critical public opinion of Facebook and declines in Facebook’s stock.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, revealed how Facebook users’ data had been used to influence the results of Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election through political adverts. Since then, increasing concerns regarding data breaches, privacy and the selling of information have been voiced. Politicians and lawmakers have been trying to play catch-up in order to regulate the technology industry as this scandal revealed that there are very few checks and balances on the immense power of these companies.


How were the emails obtained?

Six4Three is a company which enabled users to find bikini pictures from their Facebook friends. In 2014, the founder sued Facebook for preventing its access to data and thereby destroying the business after $250,000 had been invested in the app.[2] The lawsuit prompted Six4Three to reveal that Facebook was aware of the holes in its privacy policy and deliberately exploited them, as evidenced by internal emails sent at the company. A Californian judge ruled these emails should be sealed, but in a turn of events the British MP Damian Collins, as chair of the parliamentary committee currently investigating Facebook, used rare legal powers to release them. He has explained there was ‘considerable public interest’ in seeing the emails and hence compelled Six4Three founder, Ted Kramer, to hand them over whilst he was visiting London on business, reportedly with the threat of fines or imprisonment if he failed to comply.[3]


What do the emails reveal?

The most significant revelation from the emails shows Mark Zuckerburg discussing whether ‘to trade access to user data for revenue, valuable trademarks of simple cash payments’ as explained in The Guardian.[4] This suggests the company had intended to and carried out actions which undermine the privacy of their uses by trading their data. The Guardian’s analysis of the emails even reports that Zuckerburg hypothesised on how Facebook could become an ‘informational bank’ in which data was the asset.[5]


The emails also show that Facebook uses the VPN app, Onavo, to gain information about app usage on iPhones. This enables Facebook to maintain a monopoly on the market by taking ‘pre-emptive action’ against competition, for example, it bought WhatsApp in 2014 after discovering it was used to send more messages per day than Facebook Messenger.[6]


What is Facebook’s response?

Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director of developer platforms stated the documents held by Six4Three are depicted in a ‘misleading’ manner ‘without additional context,’ although further explanation of what this context consisted of was not mentioned.[7] What is clear, is that Zuckerberg’s insistence that Facebook brings people closer together and is a force for good in the world, is becoming increasingly difficult to believe.


Imaan Ahmad

Technology & Media Section Editor

17 December 2018


 

[1] Carole Cadwalladr, ‘Parliament seizes cache of Facebook internal papers,’ (The Observer, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/nov/24/mps-seize-cache-facebook-internal-papers>


[2] Hannah Kulcher and Martin Coulter, ‘Emails show Facebook offered preferential access to data, UK alleges,’ (Financial Times, 2018) <https://www.ft.com/content/99b416c4-f899-11e8-af46-2022a0b02a6c>


[3] Alex Hern, ‘Facebook discussed cashing in on user data, emails suggest,’ (The Guardian, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/dec/05/facebook-discussed-cashing-in-on-user-data-emails-suggest>


[4] Julia Carrie Wong, ‘'Good for the world'? Facebook emails reveal what really drives the site,’ (The Guardian, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/dec/05/facebook-emails-analysis-user-data-parliament>


[5] Alex Hern, ‘Facebook discussed cashing in on user data, emails suggest,’ (The Guardian, 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/dec/05/facebook-discussed-cashing-in-on-user-data-emails-suggest>


[6] Alex Hern, ‘Facebook discussed cashing in on user data, emails suggest,’ (The Guardian, 2018)



Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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