Australian Privacy Commissioner Opens Investigation into Facebook

Australia’s privacy commissioner has launched an investigation into Facebook after the social media giant revealed the data of 311,000 Australians may have been “improperly shared” with data science firm Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook announced on Thursday that 87 million users globally may have been caught up in the scandal, far more than previous estimates of 50 million and Cambridge Analytica’s own claim of 30 million.

The acting privacy and information commissioner Angelene Falk confirmed her office would now probe whether Facebook had breached Australian privacy laws, which require businesses to take reasonable steps to secure personal information and be transparent about the collection and handling of data.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

“Today I have opened a formal investigation into Facebook, following confirmation from Facebook that the information of over 300,000 Australian users may have been acquired and used without authorisation,” Ms Falk said in a statement.

“The investigation will consider whether Facebook has breached the Privacy Act 1988 (Privacy Act). Given the global nature of this matter, the [Office of the Australian Information Commissioner] will confer with regulatory authorities internationally.”

Facebook has also disclosed that the data of most of its 2 billion users could have been accessed improperly under a now disabled feature that allowed users to be found by their email addresses and phone numbers.

“Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way. So we have now disabled this feature,” the company’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer said.

Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the company had made a “huge mistake” and committed to further tightening of privacy on the platform.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is, and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake,” Mr Zuckerberg said.

He promised the company would take greater responsibility for ensuring its products weren’t used in harmful ways, including the spreading of misinformation, abuse of users, and breaches of privacy.

“It’s not enough to have rules requiring they protect information, it’s not enough to believe them when they tell us they’re protecting information – we actually have to ensure that everyone in our ecosystem protects people’s information,” he said.

Cambridge Analytica acquired the Facebook data from researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who had collected it from some 270,000 users of a personality quiz app. This data included information from the users’ personal profiles and their friends on the platform.

With 311,127 users said to be affected, Australia ranks tenth among the ten countries listed by Facebook. It estimated 70 million people in the United States were affected, followed by 1.2 million in the Philippines and about 1.1 million in Indonesia and Britain.

311,127 represents approximately 2 per cent of Facebook’s Australian users.

Asked to respond to the news that Australians were affected, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield’s office referred Fairfax Media to Attorney-General Christian Porter, who oversees privacy law. Acting attorney-general Marise Payne – standing in for Mr Porter after the birth of his second child – said the government would await the outcome of the privacy commissioner’s investigation.

The company is facing probes in Britain, the US and other countries following the revelations aired last month in a joint investigation from The New York Times and Britain’s Observer and Channel 4.