Facebook knew of Russian involvement from 2014, but didn’t act on it: Report

Russian operatives were found accessing up to 3 bn data points per day, an activity that was reported by a Facebook engineer in internal emails

Facebook’s problems just keep coming to the surface on almost a daily basis. The social media giant in its ambition to get more users and engagement has been found guilty of playing fast and loose with user data. And yet another revelation puts a question mark on how Facebook handles user data.

According to a report in Vice News, Russian operatives were found accessing up to three billion data points on a daily basis, an activity that was reported by an engineer as far back as October 2014. Internal emails, obtained by the UK Parliament committee (which was questioning Facebook on its handling of the fake news menace as part of the “International grand committee on disinformation and fake news”) showed that an engineer had flagged that an entity with a Russian IP address that had been using a Pinterest API key to access three billion data points a day using Facebook’s ordered friends API.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

A Russian entity pulling down so many data points a day should have raised some suspicions ideally. But it looks like Facebook didn’t give it much of a thought. These email documents were obtained from a US app developer which is suing Facebook. These documents, which are protected by the California court, were obtained by UK parliamentarians using a parliamentary mechanism to obtain sealed documents. The social media giant tried very hard to keep these documents from coming out.

On being questioned by British lawmaker Damian Collins about whether Facebook was aware of this and decided to keep quiet about it, Facebook VP of public policy, Richard Allan gave a very vague answer.

“There is, as I understand, a partial set of information that was obtained by a hostile litigant who is seeking to overturn the very changes, to restrict access to data, that you as a committee and others would want us to see happen,” said Allan claiming that the data accessed via the email cache was ‘at best partial and at worst misleading’. The British lawmaker clearly didn’t seem to be buying that line of argument which put the blame on a litigant rather than Facebook’s lack of internal policies in place to take action on these assessments.

According to a response by Facebook to Vice News and Buzzfeed News, the engineers who had indeed flagged these concerns, eventually on further investigations found no evidence of Russian activity. This coming from Facebook, which has been firefighting the allegations coming in daily, doesn’t seem too convincing either.

Cardboard cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Reuters

Cardboard cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Reuters

The hearing took place in the British Parliament. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned for this committee, but he refused to show up, so there was an empty chair beside Allan with Zuckerberg’s name. Lawmakers from not just the UK, but also Canada, Brazil, Latvia, Argentina, Ireland, Singapore, France and Belgium had convened to discuss the shortcomings of Facebook and how it was affecting due processes in the said countries.

Collins has said that he would go through the secret email cache before publishing them next week, to redact sensitive information. He has also asked Facebook to release the documents themselves before he goes ahead.

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