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311,000 Aussie Facebook users’ data exposed: Privacy watchdog sues

Facebook has been hauled to court, yet again. Image: Getty

Facebook allowed the personal data of around 311,127 Australians to be exposed and sold for political profit, the privacy watchdog has alleged while lodging extraordinary proceedings against the social media giant. 

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) on Monday said users’ data was disclosed to the This is Your Digital Life app without users being informed their data was being collected for additional purposes. 

It filed a statement of claim against Facebook in the Federal court today.

“Facebook’s default settings facilitated the disclosure of personal information, including sensitive information, at the expense of privacy,” OAIC and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said.

“We claim these actions left the personal data of around 311,127 Australian Facebook users exposed to be sold and used for purposes including political profiling, well outside users’ expectations.”

The Commissioner said the information was at risk of being shared with the embattled Cambridge Analytica firm and used for political profiling. 

From March 2014 to May 2015, Facebook shared the personal information of those users, the Commissioner said in the statement of claim filed today. 

And the majority of users hadn’t interacted with This is Your Digital Life, instead having their details scraped when their friends used the app. 

“All entities operating in Australia must be transparent and accountable in the way they handle personal information, in accordance with their obligations under Australian privacy law,” Falk said.

“We consider the design of the Facebook platform meant that users were unable to exercise reasonable choice and control about how their personal information was disclosed.”

In its statement, the Commissioner said users would have had to undertake a “complex process of modifying their settings on Facebook” in order to protect themselves from the breach. 

“Facebook did not adequately inform the affected Australian individuals of the manner in which their personal information would be disclosed, or that it could be disclosed to an app installed by a friend, but not installed by that individual.”

Facebook responds

A Facebook company spokesperson said the social media business has “actively engaged” with the OAIC in the last two years as the Commission undertook its investigation.

“We’ve made major changes to our platforms, in consultation with international regulators, to restrict the information available to app developers, implement new governance protocols and build industry-leading controls to help people protect and manage their data.

“We’re unable to comment further as this is now before the Federal Court.”

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal

Facebook has struggled with public perception since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Image: Getty

Cambridge Analytica was a political data firm hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, but which later came under fire for using Facebook users’ personal data to target voters. 

It affected millions of people worldwide and is considered a major turning point in the way the world understands the political power of social media firms. When a whistleblower came forward on 17 March 2018, Facebook haemorrhaged US$100 billion in market capitalisation within days, and triggered major legal cases in the USA and Europe.

The Silicon Valley juggernaut was last fined a whopping AU$7.17 billion for its part in the political scandal - the largest fine the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had ever lobbed at a tech firm. 

“Despite repeated promises to its billions of users worldwide that they could control how their personal information is shared, Facebook undermined consumers’ choices,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a statement.

Yahoo Finance has contacted Facebook for comment.

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