Zuckerberg grilling shows generational divide

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg greets Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator John Thune. (Reuters)

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg greets Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator John Thune. (Reuters)

On Tuesday, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg began his testimony before the United States’ Congress, answering senators’ questions regarding the company’s largest data breach in its history and proposing solutions to curb future infringements.

In 2014, a personality quiz application invented by Russian academic Aleksandr Kogan, called “This is Your Digital Life”, used Facebook to gain access to users’ and their Facebook friends’ public profiles including their page likes, birthdays, places of residence and private messages.

Though only 270 000 people consented to giving the app their Facebook profile information, the app gained access to 87-million people, including nearly 60 000 South Africans. Kogan then sold the app’s data to the now infamous social engineering firm Cambridge Analytica to target millions of Facebook users in President Donald Trump’s election campaign. Cambridge Analytica claims to have not known that they obtained the data illicitly.

For five hours, Zuckerberg remained stoic while answering questions about specific solutions to the current data breach. When questioned by California Senator Kamala Harris about why Facebook did not notify users when the network discovered Cambridge Analytica’s data, he responded that “it was a mistake” that they didn’t let users know and that “there’s a lot of things [they] should have done differently”.

Zuckerberg was unsure of how to answer certain questions including why Facebook didn’t ban Cambridge Analytic from the social network and specifically how long Facebook holds on to personal data after accounts have been deleted.

Rather than focusing on solutions to data breaches, many senators questioned the technology behind Facebook and its business model revealing their disregard and a lack of comprehension about Facebook’s data privacy policies.

Michigan Senator Gary Peters asked Zuckerberg about whether Facebook uses smartphones’ microphones to listen in on private conversations to which Zuckerberg curtly replied “no”. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch asked Zuckerberg why Facebook has a business model where users do not pay for its services, to which Zuckerberg replied how the company gains revenue from advertisements.

Zuckerberg also showed up Louisiana Senator John Kennedy when it turned out the senator’s recommended user data security policies were already in place. Kennedy asked Zuckerberg if Facebook can give users “a greater right to erase” and share data, to which Zuckerberg replied that Facebook already gives those rights to users. After the exchange, Senator Kennedy went on to say Facebook’s “user agreement sucks” and that him and Zuckerberg were “not connecting”.

After the hearing, Zuckerberg said the social media platform has been investigating data gathering apps and he wants to prevent future interference in elections. The chief executive also stressed that Facebook is in an “arms race” with Russia and that the company will work on finding fake accounts that are trying to expose data.

Zuckerberg will appear before Congress again this evening at 4pm to testify further.

Arielle Schwartz

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