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The latest on Facebook’s data scandal: lawsuits, calls to quit, and whistleblowers ignored

And all the while the firm’s CEO remains hugely conspicuous by his absence. Backstory: In case you missed it, Facebook is embroiled in a huge scandal because of the way its users’ data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, a firm that provided data to the Trump election campaign in 2016. Overlooked whistleblowers: Ex-Facebook staffer Sandy Parakilas told British politicians today that his warnings about the firm’s lax data protection standards were ignored, and that some of the executives he told still work at the social network.

To this point, today’s Bloomberg Businessweek cover story makes a compelling argument: maybe we need a Data Protection Agency? The legal backlash begins: It was only a matter of time, but the first legal complaints against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have now been filed. Expect more to follow in the coming days.

#DeleteFacebook: Brian Acton, the cofounder of WhatsApp (who made billions by selling his startup to, ahem, Facebook in 2014), has been a very vocal part of a campaign urging people to quit the social network. “It is time. #deletefacebook,” he tweeted. (Or you could manipulate Facebook instead of letting it manipulate you.) Where’s Zuck? The CEO was a no-show at a staff meeting yesterday. The Daily Beast says he’s “working around the clock.” The American and British governments want him to give evidence, but he sent “mid-level staffers” to testify to Congress today.

Maybe here’s Zuck: The Verge says he’s expected to make an appearance at a company Q&A on Friday. Meanwhile Axios reports that the CEO will speak out about the scandal “in the next 24 hours.” So expect to hear from his some time this week. We guess.

Lots to lose: Media analysts say that Facebook has made a huge mess of handling the situation so far. (See: the firm’s stock price.) When Zuck does speak out, he will need to tread carefully–more mistakes could be damaging, to both reputation and bottom line.

Is it different this time? Every Facebook scandal feels like the one that’s going to bring about radical change, but it hasn’t–yet. Gadfly proposes that Facebook is bigger, and lawmakers more suspicious, than ever this time, so it could be different.

But that’s a very big “could.”

Image credit:

  • Facebook / Jamie Condliffe

Apple Watches aren’t so great at detecting irregular heartbeats yet

Researchers used data from Apple Watches and a machine-learning algorithm to see if they could identify heart problems in smart-watch wearers. The study: A team from the University of California, San Francisco, collected heart-rate and step-count data from nearly 10,000 people who wore Apple Watches over a six-month period. Then they trained a neural network to try to find irregular heartbeats in that data.

The results: The system was 98 percent successful at identifying 51 patients who were undergoing treatment to restore regular heart rhythm. But it was far less accurate at spotting 1,617 people who reported that they had an irregular heartbeat. In that group, the neural network correctly identified the people with the heart issues just under 68 percent of the time.

Why it matters: About 34 million people worldwide have an irregular heartbeat, also known as atrial fibrillation, and it is a leading cause of stroke. It often has no symptoms and can go undetected until a stroke happens. A smart watch that can pick up on abnormal heart rhythms could help doctors find people at risk–and possibly even prevent strokes.

The bottom line: Apple and other tech companies like Verily, the life-sciences unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, want to use their wearable devices for large-scale medical studies to collect all sorts of health data from participants.

But as this study shows, they’ll first have to figure out how to interpret all that data accurately.

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Academic who collected 50 million Facebook profiles: ‘We thought we were doing something normal’

The academic at the heart of the Facebook data scandal has said he is being used as a scapegoat by the US tech giant. Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University, collected a dataset of some tens of millions of Facebook users four years ago using a personality quiz app. Kogan later passed this information on to voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica, which claimed (but now denies) that it used the data to craft political ads for President Trump’s 2016 election.

Kogan’s comments, made to BBC Radio 4’s Today program, describe an environment of permissive data-gathering and lax privacy policies. “We thought we were acting perfectly appropriately.

We thought we were doing something that was really normal,” Kogan said. “My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.”

Kogan said that he was assured by Cambridge Analytica that “thousands and maybe tens of thousands of apps were doing the exact same thing” and that “this was a pretty normal use case of Facebook data.” (Kogan says he handed over information on 30 million users to Cambridge Analytica, although reports from The New York Times and others set this number at 50 million when including profiles with scant information.)

Facebook says Kogan violated the company’s data policies by using the information he collected for commercial purposes. Between 2007 and 2014, the company gave developers access to its social graph — the map of users’ networks of friends, interests, and likes. But multiple reports say the social network did very little to police this sort of activity, only asking third-parties to sign minimal agreements, and only investigating misuses after they were reported to the company.

One former Facebook employee told The Wall Street Journal that “the main enforcement mechanism was call [developers] and yell at them.” An anonymous app builder who collected information from users over this period told Business Insider he remembers thinking to himself: “Fuck, people will literally give away everything for nothing.”

Industry insiders say the collection and misuse of this data was and is common.

But the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which broke this weekend thanks to the testimony of a former employee, Chris Wylie, has shone a spotlight on these practices. This is at least in part because of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 US election, where it served as the data operations team for the Trump campaign. Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of parallel investigations, with an undercover reporter filming CEO Alexander Nix boasting about using bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians.

Nix was suspended from the company earlier this week.

Whether or not the Facebook data helped swing the election for Trump is unclear, although experts are skeptical. “I think Cambridge Analytica is a better marketing company than a targeting company,” one academic studying political microtargeting told The Verge this week.

Speaking to Radio 4, Kogan echoed these sentiments, saying Cambridge Analytica had tried to sell “magic” but that its efforts “could have only hurt [Trump’s] campaign.”

“The accuracy of this data has been extremely exaggerated,” said Kogan. “In practice my best guess is that we were six times more likely to get everything wrong about a person as we were to get everything right about a person. I personally don’t think micro-targeting is an effective way to use such datasets.”

But even if microtargeting is not effective, it’s clear that these reports have brought Facebook’s reputation to a new low. The #deletefacebook campaign is in full swing, and even high profile figures like Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, have joined in.

The social network is reportedly under investigation from the FTC, from New York and Massachusetts’ attorneys general, from Canada’s privacy watchdog, and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been summoned by UK MPs to answer questions before parliament.

Zuckerberg has been notably absent this week, and has yet to make a public statement on the scandal.

He’s expected to do so before Thursday evening.

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