Australia's privacy commissioner launches investigation into Facebook

By on
A man poses with a magnifier in front of a Facebook logo on display in this illustration taken in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, December 16, 2015
A man poses with a magnifier in front of a Facebook logo on display in this illustration taken in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, December 16, 2015 Reuters/Dado Ruvic

A formal investigation into social media giant Facebook has been launched in Australia after it was revealed that Facebook users in the country were among the 87 million users globally whose data was unknowingly shared with political consultancy agency Cambridge Analytica. The country’s privacy commissioner is set to investigate whether Facebook had breached Australian privacy laws.

Figures released on Thursday suggested that 87 million users around the world may have been impacted. The number was more than the earlier estimate of 50 million and Cambridge Analytica's claim of 30 million.

Data of 311,000 Aussies were reportedly said to have been "improperly shared" with Cambridge Analytica.

Angelene Falk, the acting privacy and information commissioner, declared a probe on whether the social media site had breached privacy laws in Australia. These laws require businesses to take reasonable steps to safeguard personal information. It also requires transparency when it comes to the collection and handling of data.

Falk released a statement to announce that she has already opened a formal investigation into Facebook, citing confirmation from the website that information of more than 300,000 Australians may have been obtained and used without their consent. The enquiry, she said, would consider whether the company has breached the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act).

Cambridge Analytica reportedly obtained Facebook data from researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who performed the collection after designing an app supposedly intended for academic purposes. The data reportedly included information from the users' personal profiles.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg admitted that the company had made a "huge mistake" and vowed to take further steps to tighten privacy on the platform. A Facebook post from Zuckerberg's verified account announces that the company has recently put all users’ privacy and security settings in one place called Privacy Shortcuts.

“We're going to put this in front of everyone over the next few weeks,” the post reads.

The new privacy policy seeks to explain more clearly the data it collects on users.

Facebook currently faces probes in the United States, Britain and other countries following various claims. It has been disclosed that the data of most of its two billion users could have been obtained improperly under a now disabled feature, which allowed users to be searched by their phone numbers and email addresses. There were also allegations that Cambridge Analytica obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users to influence the 2016 US presidential elections.