WASHINGTON • American and European officials on Sunday called for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to explain how personal information about tens of millions of users ended up in the hands of a data analysis company that worked for President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign - without the permission or knowledge of the vast majority of those affected.
News reports about Facebook's role in the aggressive form of data collection have also raised serious questions about whether it violated a landmark consent decree with a federal watchdog agency designed to prevent privacy violations.
Mr David Vladeck, a former director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, negotiated the 2011 agreement between the FTC and Facebook. He said the law allows fines of up to US$40,000 (S$52,700) per violation. With a reported 50 million people affected, the "maximum exposure" could reach into the billions of dollars, he added.
Facebook has denied violating the agreement with the FTC, but the surge of political and regulatory scrutiny at the weekend again turned a harsh spotlight on a company that has been scrambling to protect its reputation since allegations emerged about Russian agents using the social media platform in an attempt to manipulate US voters during the 2016 election season and beyond.
The latest revelations concern how people working for Cambridge Analytica (CA), which the Trump campaign paid at least US$6 million to assist in its digital operations, used an app to gather research on 270,000 users in 2014 and 2015.
But the number of affected people was many more - likely in the tens of millions - because the data routinely available to app developers in that era also included information on a user's list of friends, including names, education, work histories, birthdays, likes, locations, photos, relationship statuses, and religious and political affiliations.
That kind of information is extremely valuable to political campaigns for tailoring messages, advertisements and fund-raising pitches.
ZUCKERBERG NEEDS TO TESTIFY
They say 'trust us', but Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters.
U.S. SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR
Though both Facebook and CA have been embroiled in investigations in Washington and London for months, some of the demands focused explicitly on Mr Zuckerberg, who has not testified publicly on these matters in either capital.
"They say 'trust us', but Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters," said US Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Similar calls for official investigations came from several other US lawmakers, the European Union's Justice Commissioner and British lawmaker Damian Collins, who heads a parliamentary committee that has been investigating Facebook and CA. "I will be writing to Mark Zuckerberg asking that either he or another senior executive from the company appear to give evidence in front of the committee as part our inquiry," Mr Collins said on Sunday. At least two US state attorneys-general, from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, have also announced plans to investigate.
Facebook declined to comment on the requests for Mr Zuckerberg to testify, but said on Sunday that it was renewing efforts to investigate what happened. Facebook is also investigating its hiring of Mr Joseph Chancellor, who is identified in corporate documents as an official of the parent company of CA and is now at the social network, focusing on virtual reality. But it would not say whether it was aware of Mr Chancellor's role at CA at the time of his hiring.