When Facebook faced the Cambridge Analytica Scandal in March which involved the harvesting of personal data of 87million people without their consent, the social networking giant has repeatedly appeared before inquiries to answer for this great breach of data. After that much-publicized scandal, Facebook was quick to defend itself in a blog post indicating that in 2014 it changed an element of its API in order to prevent apps from collecting data on their users’ friend in the manner in which the Cambridge Analytica app did. Facebook further stated that it announced the change in 2014 but that the apps that already had access to users’ friends’ data still continued to have access only up to May 2015.
Within the more than 700 pages of written responses submitted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, Facebook did acknowledge that some of the apps continued to have access for up to six months longer in an effort to allow them to come into compliance with the new rules. There were various companies on the list with apps such as Hinge, Spotify and many others. However, one particular company on the list that raised many eyebrows especially in Washington was the Russian internet giant Mail.ru.
A Two-week Extension
According to a statement by Facebook, Mail.ru was given an extension of two weeks to allow it to wind down a feature on two messaging apps that enabled users to check out their Facebook friend lists and chat with people who had Mail.ru apps installed on their phones. However, long before the extension was introduced, Mail.ru ran hundreds of apps some in operation since 2009, on the platform and all those apps operated under the old rules Facebook had in place.
Facebook is quick to reassure the public by saying that the majority of Mail.ru’s apps were test apps that were private and only a few launched publicly. What is worrying is that the social media giant doesn’t share details on how many users may have had their information exposed to Mail.ru’s app collection. Facebook is actually currently investigating Mail.ru and all the other apps that had access to user data before the new rules were in place. According to the Facebook spokesman, the investigation itself is not a condemnation. He says "We found no indication of misuse with Mail.ru. If we detect any suspicious activity or potential misuse, that’s when we formally audit a company."
The recent concerns over Russia’s manipulation of social networks in the run-up to the 2016 election brought the relationship between Facebook and Mail.ru to new light.
According to Mail.ru spokesperson, “We assume that while changing API Facebook changed the terms for the clients who had popular applications that had not been updated to the latest version [...] We definitely use our cooperation with Facebook strictly for business needs of our products and strictly according to the Facebook regulations."
A Brokered Extension
The idea that Facebook might have brokered an extension with Mail.ru may actually not be surprising. It is known that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire and Mail.ru founder who was also a major Facebook investor have a close relationship.
However, Yuri Milner is quick to refute those claims by stating through his spokesman, “ Yuri Milner has not been involved as CEO of Mail.ru since 2003. Shortly after the IPO of Mail.ru in 2010, he sold all of his shares in the company. In 2012, he stepped down from the board of directors and has not been involved since then."
Reports have also surfaced about Milner’s connection to the Kremlin. After the Paradise papers leak in November 2017 where 13.4 million confidential documents related to offshore payments, The New York Times reported that Milner was the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian state funding which he partly used to invest in both Facebook and Twitter through DST Global, his international investment firm.
Nothing in the reports suggested that the investments by Milner were part of Russian influence operation. However, when the United States launched federal investigations into Russian interference in the election the news suggesting Milner’s ties with the Kremlin became public.
Milner was, however, quick to defend his reputation by stating in a letter that the idea that he tried to infiltrate American tech companies to help Russia was “far-fetched” and a “fairy tale.”
More Questions Than Answers
After Facebook’s disclosures, New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallon Jr. had this to say about Facebook’s answers to Congress, “the answers raise more questions than they answer. It’s disconcerting that four months after this scandal became public Facebook still has no idea how many others have its users’ data and how that data is being used today.”
Democratic Senator Mark Warner who has been investigating Russia’s misconduct on social media platforms as the vice chairman of SIC had this to say, “We need to determine what user information was shared with Mail.ru and what may have been done with the captured data.” Warner also expressed particular concern that key players at Mail.ru, including major investor Alisher Usmanov, "boast close ties to Vladimir Putin.”
A lack of transparency
With Facebook coming out now with this crucial bit of information, almost a year after investigations into Russian actors’ manipulation of Facebook began, this shows a great lack of transparency on Facebook’s part. After being repeatedly asked about the access that Russian state agencies had to Facebook user data Facebook could only respond by saying that between 2013 and 2017 it had received 34 requests for data from the Russian government and didn’t provide any data response to any of these requests.
According to experts, the Mail.ru deal and the fact that Facebook gave data to device manufacturers including Chinese companies such as Huawei was a glaring naiveté on Facebook’s part when it comes to the power that international regimes wield over businesses within their borders.
According to Brett Bruen, a US diplomat who served as director of global engagement under President Obama and now runs the consulting firm Global Situation Room, "If you are a Russian businessperson of a certain scale, you can’t escape the requirements Russian intelligence services are going to put on you…This is the reality of doing business in Russia today."
The Cambridge Analytica scandal looks like child’s play in comparison to what a state-sponsored intelligence agency could do with all of that data. "Cambridge Analytica was a relatively small company that was fiddling on the edges," Bruen says. "Now put that information in the hands of a massive intelligence agency."
It is unfortunate that some tech companies are manipulated into giving out data while others give access to data willingly. In the end, massive data in the wrong hands is powerful enough to influence just about anything from the markets to the politics of the world.