Facebook data breach hits Canada

Most of us use the internet without much concern about our privacy, but the Cambridge Analytica revelations have put that kind of faith in question. At the heart of the scandal is Facebook whose data was improperly used by the data company.  As many as 87 million users world-wide had their data accessed and over 600,000 of those were Canadian.

One way this happened was personal data being ‘scraped’ from applications (apps) that people installed on their Facebook page themselves without forewarning or, apparently, oversight from Facebook.  At his testimony to Congress this week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified that the site would be removing these apps and restricting the data it allows others to access.  This is a start, but the issue highlights the lack of anonymity that anyone has online.

Personalized targeted ads are a perfect example of how far the reach into your online activity goes.  Search for an item online, maybe you want to compare prices or read customer reviews, and you will begin to see ads for similar products almost immediately.  Mark Zuckerberg told Congress that advertising is what allows Facebook to offer its product for free.  But even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it is clear that people may not be aware just how much Facebook knows about you and shares about you.  The blunt truth is that advertisers tell them who they want to reach and they help them to do that. This might seem innocent enough for consumer goods, but what if the advertisers want to use FB data to swing elections? 

That’s exactly what is at the root of the current scandal.  A whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica claims that the firm was used to engineer sentiment about the Brexit vote and for Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign.  To do this, they used seemingly harmless items such as a personality quiz to profile voters and then targeted them. Here in Canada it is unclear what the data gleaned from Canadian users was used for, but that’s what MPs are anxious to learn.

For that reason New Democrats put forward a motion to have the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics launch an immediate inquiry into the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as the privacy implications of other monopolistic digital platforms like Amazon and Google. The motion was passed unanimously. New Democrats are also putting forward a motion in the House of Commons calling for a Digital Bill of Rights, including universal and affordable access to the internet, enhanced privacy rights, ownership of personal data, and other key aspects of digital citizenship.

The data breach highlights the need for increased scrutiny of digital platform monopolies, which have become critical tools of the 21st century.  We have to ensure that Canadians’ right to privacy is respected, which is the reason for a digital bill of rights, and the push for a fair and transparent global framework for digital services.  As the breach was reported, the government announced that it was finally going to move forward on a long-awaited regulation that would require notifying Canadians of any unauthorized access to their data. This was three years after the passage of the Digital Privacy Act. Canadians are rightly looking for a much stronger response.