Canada’s Privacy Czar Slams Facebook, Says It Won’t Admit It Broke Law
Posted On April 26, 2019
The office of the federal privacy commissioner is warning Canadians that Facebook may use their personal information “in ways the user may not know of or expect,” as detailed in a scathing report on a privacy breach at the social media website.
In a report released with his provincial counterpart in British Columbia, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien outlined how Facebook broke a number of Canadian privacy laws when it failed to protect users’ information from being harvested by the now-defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
“Facebook’s refusal to act responsibly is deeply troubling given the vast amount of sensitive personal information users have entrusted to this company,” Therrien said in a statement. “Their privacy framework was empty, and their vague terms were so elastic that they were not meaningful for privacy protection.”
Watch: Facebook faces $3 billion FTC fine for privacy violation. Story continues below.
The company’s “refusal to address the serious problems we’ve identified — or even acknowledge that it broke the law — is extremely concerning,” Therrien added.
At a news conference Thursday, Therrien said he is taking Facebook to court.
“If we go before the Federal Court, it will be able to order Facebook to change its practices,” he said.
In what became one of the largest scandals to engulf the social media site, Facebook was accused last year of ignoring its users’ privacy after it emerged that an app called “This Is Your Digital Life” — which was downloaded by 300,000 people — scooped up the personal data of 87 million Facebook users, including reportedly more than 620,000 Canadians.
In an emailed statement to HuffPost Canada, a Facebook spokesperson said the company is “disappointed that the (Office of the Privacy Commissioner) considers the issues raised in this report unresolved,” saying the company engaged in “many months of good-faith cooperation and lengthy negotiations.”
The statement went on to say that “there’s no evidence that Canadians’ data was shared with Cambridge Analytica.” That seems to contradict what Facebook said publicly last year, when it estimated that more than 620,000 Canadians likely had their information scooped up by Cambridge Analytica through apps used by them or their friends.
Cambridge Analytica allegedly used the data for political purposes, including potentially to aid Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The privacy commissioners’ report concluded that Facebook broke Canadian law in a number of ways, including by allowing unauthorized access to personal data, not getting meaningful consent from “friends of friends” for their data to be shared and failing to oversee the privacy practices of apps on its platform.
The commissioners said they presented Facebook executives with recommendations that would bring the company in line with Canadian privacy law, but the company resisted.
“We are disappointed that Facebook either outright rejected, or refused to implement our recommendations in any manner acceptable to our Offices,” the commisioners’ report stated.
“In our view, therefore, the risk is high that Canadians’ personal information will be disclosed to apps and used in ways the user may not know of or expect.”
Facebook says it has responded to privacy concerns in a number of ways, including limiting the sort of data app developers can collect from users; launching investigations into apps that have collected large amounts of data on users; and giving people more control over what data is shared.
The commissioners are calling on policymakers to give regulators more power to enforce Canada’s privacy laws.
“The ability to levy meaningful fines would be an important starting point,” British Columbia Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy said in a statement.
The report noted that this isn’t the first time Canadian privacy czars have investigated Facebook. A 2009 probe found similar problems with obtaining user consent and oversight of apps’ behaviour.
“If Facebook had implemented the 2009 investigation’s recommendations meaningfully, the risk of unauthorized access and use of Canadians’ personal information by third party apps could have been avoided or significantly mitigated,” the report noted.
This story has been updated from its original version, to include comment from Facebook.