On 24th October the Information Commissioner imposed a fine (monetary penalty) of £500,000 on Facebook Ireland and Facebook Inc (which is based in California, USA) for breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998. In doing so the Commissioner levied the maximum fine that she could under the now repealed DPA 1998. Her verdict was that the fine was ‘appropriate’ given the circumstances of the case. For anyone following the so-called Facebook data scandal the fine might seem small beer for an organisation that is estimated to be worth over 5 billion US Dollars. Without doubt, had the same facts played out after 25th May 2018 then the fine would arguably have been much higher, reflecting the gravity and seriousness of the breach and the number of people affected.
In summary, the Facebook (FB) companies permitted Dr Aleksandr Kogan to operate a third-party application (“App”) that he had created, known as “thisisyourdigitallife” on the FB platform. The FB companies allowed him and his company (Global Science Research (GSR) to operate the app in conjunction with FB from November 2013 to May 2015. The app was designed to and was able to obtain a significant amount of personal information from any FB user who used the app, including:
- Their public FB profile, date of birth and current city
- Photographs they were tagged in
- Pages they liked
- Posts on their time lime and their news feed posts
- Friends list
- Facebook messages (there was evidence to suggest the app also accessed the content of the messages)
The app was also designed to and was able to obtain extensive personal data from the FB friends of the App’s users and anyone who had messaged the App user. Neither the FB friends or people who had sent messages were informed that the APP was able to access their data, and nor did they give their consent.
The APP was able to use the information that it collected about users, their friends and people who had messaged them, in order to generate personality profiles. The information and also the data derived from the information was shared by Dr Kogan and his company with three other companies, including SCL Elections Ltd (which controls the now infamous Cambridge Analytica).
In May 2014 Dr Kogan sought permission to migrate the App to a new version of the FB platform. This new version reduced the ability of apps to access information about the FB friends of users. FB refused permission straight away. However, Dr Kogan and GSR continued to have access to, and therefore retained, the detailed information about users and the friends of its users that it had previously collected via their App. FB did nothing to make Dr Kogan or his company delete the information. The App remained in operation until May 2015.
Breach of the DPA
The Commissioner’s findings about the breach make sorry reading for FB and FB users. Not only did the FB companies breach the Data Protection Act, they also failed to comply or ensure compliance with their own FB Platform Policy, and were not aware of this fact until exposed by the Guardian newspaper in December 2015.
The FB companies had breached s 4 (4) DPA 1998 by failing to comply with the 1stand 7th data protection principles. They had:
- Unfairly processed personal data in breach of 1st data protection principle (DPP1). FB unfairly processed personal data of the App users, their friends and those who exchanged messages with users of the APP. FB failed to provide adequate information to FB users that their data could be collected by virtue of the fact that their friends used the App or that they exchanged messages with APP users. FB tried, unsucesfully and unfairly, to deflect responsibility onto the FB users who could have set their privacy settings to prevent their data from being collected. The Commissioner rightly rejected this. The responsibility was on Facebooks to inform users about the App and what information it would collect and why. FB users should have been given the opportunity to withhold or give their consent. If any consent was purportedly given by users of the APP or their friends, it was invalid because it was not freely given , specific or informed. Conseqauntly, consent did not provide a lawful basis for processing
- Failed to take appropriate technical and organisational measures against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data, in breach of the 7th data protection principle (DPP7). The processing by Dr Kogan and GSR was unauthorised (it was inconsistent with basis on which FB allowed Dr Kogan to obtain access of personal data for which they were the data controller; it breached the Platform Policy and the Undertaking. The processing by DR Kogan and his company was also unlawful, because it was unfair processing. The FB companies failed to take steps (or adequate steps) to guard against and unlawful processing. (See below). The Commissioner considered that the FB companies knew or ought to have known that there was a serious risk of contravention of the data protection principle sand they failed to take reasonable steps to prevent such a contravention.
Breach of FB Platform Policy
Although the FB companies operated a FB Platform Policy in relation to Apps, they failed to ensure that the App operated in compliance with the policy, and this constituted their breach of the 7th data protection principle. For example, they didn’t check Dr Kogan’s terms and conditions of use of the APP to see whether they were consistent with their policy (or presumably whether they were lawful). In fact they failed to implement a system to carry out such a review. It was also found that the use of the App breached the policy in a number of respects, specifically:
- Personal data obtained about friends of users should only have been used to improve the experience of App users. Instead Dr Kogan and GSR was able to use it for their own purposes.
- Personal data collected by the APP should not be sold or third parties. Dr Kogan and GSR had transferred the data to three companies.
- The App required permission from users to obtain personal data that the App did not need in breach of the policy.
The FB companies also failed to check that Dr Kogan was complying with an undertaking he had given in May 2014 that he was only using the data for research, and not commercial, purposes. However perhaps one of the worst indictments is that FB only became aware that the App was breaching its own policy when the Guardian newspaper broke the story on December 11 2015. It was only at this point, when the story went viral, that FB terminate the App’s access right to the Facebook Login. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Joint Data Controllers
The Commissioner decided that Facebook Ireland and Facebook Inc were, at all material times joint data controllers and therefore jointly and severally liable. They were joint data controllers of the personal data of data subjects who are resident outside Canada and the USA and whose personal data is processed by or in relation to the operation of the Facebook platform. This was on the basis that the two companies made decisions about how to operate the platform in respect of the personal data of FB users.
The Commissioner also concluded that they processed personal data in the context of a UK establishment, namely FB UK (based in London) in respect of any individuals who used the FB site from the UK during the relevant period. This finding was necessary in order to bring the processing within scope of the DPA and for the Commissioner to exercise jurisdiction of the two Facebook companies.
The Use of Data Analytics for Political Purposes
The Commissioner considered that some of the data that was shared by Dr Kogan and his company, with the three companies is likely to have been used in connection with, or for the purposes of, political campaigning. FB denied this as far as UK residents were concerned and the Commissioner was unable, on the basis of information before her, whether FN was correct. However, she nevertheless concluded that the personal data of UK users who were UK residents was put at serious risk of being shared and used in connection with political campaigning. In short Dr Kogan and/or his company were in apposition where they were at liberty to decide how to use the personal data of UK residents, or who to share it with.
As readers will know, this aspect of the story continues to attract much media attention about the possible impact of the data sharing scandal on the US Presidential elections and the Brexit referendum. The Commissioner’s conclusions are quite guarded, given the lack of evidence or information available to her.
Susan Wolf will be delivering these upcoming workshops and the forthcoming FOI: Contracts and Commercial Confidentiality workshop which is taking place on the 10th December in London.
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