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App developer says he is ‘scapegoat’ in Facebook data row | World

Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan, the creator of an app that harvested data from millions of Facebook users. Image courtesy: CNN Video/Screenshot

LONDON: The academic behind an app that harvested data from millions of Facebook users said Wednesday he was being scapegoated in an online privacy row that has rocked the world’s biggest social network.

British data firm Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are accused of improperly using the information for US President Donald Trump’s election 2016 campaign.

The scandal, which has seen the suspension of CA’s chief executive, wiped out $60 billion of Facebook’s market value since the start of the week, Bloomberg reported Wednesday.

However, both firms have denied any wrongdoing and instead blamed the app’s inventor, Aleksandr Kogan, for misusing the data.

But Kogan hit back Wednesday, saying that CA had assured him his activities were above board.

“I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” he said. 

“We thought we were acting perfectly appropriately. We thought we were doing something that was really normal.

“We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the terms of service” of Facebook.

The University of Cambridge psychologist behind the personality survey This Is Your Digital Life told the BBC that around 200,000 people used his app and around 30 million US Facebook users’ details were harvested.

The app’s vast reach beyond its users happened by scooping up data from their friends on Facebook, which says the details were taken without its knowledge.

Kogan said CA approached him to do the work but did not know how the firm would use the personal data collected, leaving him “stunned” by the allegations against him.

Kogan said he strongly regretted not asking more questions about the work he did for CA.

“My motivation was to get a dataset I could do research on; I have never profited from this in any way personally,” he added.

Pressure on Facebook, CA

The scandal erupted over the weekend after a CA whistleblower said the firm was able to create psychological profiles on 50 million Facebook users via a personality prediction app developed by Kogan and downloaded by 270,000 people.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have demanded answers in the scandal, which has ratcheted up the pressure on Facebook — already under fire for allowing fake news to proliferate on its platform during the US presidential election.

Kogan said he would be prepared to appear before British or US lawmakers if requested.

A Facebook whistleblower testified Wednesday that the firm turned a blind eye to what happened to its data handed to third parties.

“Facebook was allowing developers to access the data of people who hadn’t explicitly authorised that,” said Sandy Parakilas, who worked in data protection and policy compliance for apps at the company between 2011 and 2012.

Facebook “lost sight” of what developers did with the data once it had left the company, and had “relatively little detection of policy violations”, he told a scrutiny panel of British MPs.

European Union officials have called for an urgent investigation while British, US and EU lawmakers have asked Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence.

The EU unveiled Wednesday proposals for a digital tax that targets US tech giants, heaping more problems on Facebook.

The plans are aimed at recovering billions of euros from mainly US multinationals that shift earnings around Europe to pay lower tax rates.

‘Delete and forget’

US media reported Tuesday evening that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is investigating Facebook over the data scandal.

Facebook said its top executives were “working around the clock to get all the facts”.

“The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information,” the firm said.

Facebook shares fell 2.6 percent on Tuesday to close at $168.15, adding to Monday’s big decline.

A movement to quit Facebook has gathered momentum, getting a boost Wednesday from a high-profile co-founder of the WhatsApp messaging service.

“#deletefacebook,” Brian Acton said in a tweet, using the hashtag protesting the site’s handling of the crisis.

“Delete and forget. It’s time to care about privacy,” he said.

British Prime Minister Theresa May urged Facebook and CA to cooperate with the national information commissioner’s probe.

“The allegations are clearly very concerning,” she told MPs.

“People need to have confidence in how their personal data is being used.

“I would expect Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and all organisations involved to comply fully with the investigation that is taking place.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Home Office interior ministry have had past contracts with CA’s parent SCL Group, a government spokesman said, but there are no current contracts.

CA suspended its chief executive Alexander Nix on Tuesday as recordings emerged of him boasting that the firm played an expansive role in Trump’s 2016 election campaign, doing all of its research, analytics as well as digital and television campaigns.

In undercover filming captured by Channel 4 television, he is also seen boasting about entrapping politicians and secretly operating in elections around the world through shadowy front companies.

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