Facebook hit with first fine over Cambridge Analytica scandal

Social media could be forced to pay £500,000 for failing to protect people’s personal data, UK privacy watchdog says

Photo: EPA

The UK's data protection watchdog plans to hit Facebook with a maximum possible fine of £500,000 (565,000 euros) for allowing political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest the information of millions of people without their consent.

According to statement by The Information Commissioner's Office Facebook had failed to ensure that Cambridge Analytica had deleted users' data. Criminal actions would be also brought against Cambridge Analytica's defunct parent company SCL Elections. Moreover, the ICO announced that another company - Aggregate IQ - which worked with the Vote Leave campaign in the run up to the EU Referendum, must stop processing UK citizens' data.

Facebook said it would respond to the report "soon".

“As we have said before, we should have done more to investigate claims about Cambridge Analytica and take action in 2015,” said Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer. “We have been working closely with the ICO in their investigation of Cambridge Analytica, just as we have with authorities in the US and other countries.”

It is the first financial penalty Facebook’s has faced since the data leak was revealed earlier this year. Still, the fine is modest compared with previous sanctions on Facebook on other cases. In 2017, for instance, it was fined 110m euros by the European Commission, which in the same year punished Google for 2.42bn euros. The ICO however could have levied a much higher penalty if the breach had taken place under the EU's new data protection regulations, since violations of GDPR rules may lead to fines of as much as 4 percent of a company’s global annual sales. For the year ending Dec. 31 2017, Facebook’s revenue totaled 34,71 bn euros, meaning it could have faced a maximum fine of about 1bn euros.

The decision by the ICO comes 16 months after the watchdog began its probe into political campaigners' use of personal data following concerns raised by whistleblower Christopher Wylie, among others. More than 50m Facebook users - including one million people in the UK - had data harvested by Cambridge Analytica without their consent. The London-based firm worked for Donald Trump’s campaign team in the 2016 US presidential election and used the data to build a software program to predict and try to influence votes. The information was gathered through an app that paid users to take a personality test but that also harvested details about their Facebook friends. The ICO found Facebook had breached its own rules and failed to make sure Cambridge Analytica had deleted this personal data. While Cambridge Analytica insisted it had indeed wiped the data after Facebook's easure request in December 2015, the ICO said it had seen evidence that copies of the data had been shared with others.

"This potentially brings into question the accuracy of the deletion certificates provided to Facebook," said an ICO spokesperson.

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