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News & Analysis

Australia’s information commissioner is suing Facebook for Cambridge Analytica data privacy breaches

- March 9, 2020 2 MIN READ
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
The Australian Information Commissioner has launched Federal Court legal action against Facebook, accusing the social media giant of “systemic failures to comply with Australian privacy laws” involving more than 311,000 Australian users as the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal continues.

The case alleges that between March 2014 to May 2015, Facebook disclosed the personal information of Australian Facebook users to This Is Your Digital Life app, ranging from their interests to relationship status, what they liked on the site and even messages sent and received via Messenger.

Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk said Facebook “committed serious and/or repeated interferences with privacy”, with Facebook allowing the data to be sold off and used for “purpose including political profiling”.

The app was developed by researcher Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who supplied the data gathered to British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which used it on behalf of the Republications and Donald Trump during the 2016 US election.

Most of the people who had their personal information scraped did not install the app – it was disclosed via their friends’ use of the app.

Falk says just 53 Australians downloaded the This Is Your Digital Life app, but its reach into the lives of people they were connected to via Facebook involved 311,074 Australian users among the 86.3 million people caught up in the global data scraping scandal.

“The opacity of Facebook’s settings and policies hampered” Australian users in “understanding that their data was disclosed to the app” Australian Government Solicitor Sonja Marsic wrote in the claim.

Falk said the design of the Facebook platform meant users were unable to exercise reasonable choice and control about how their personal information was disclosed.

“Facebook’s default settings facilitated the disclosure of personal information, including sensitive information, at the expense of privacy,” she said

“We claim these actions left the personal data of around 311,127 Australian Facebook users exposed to be sold and used for purposes including political profiling, well outside users’ expectations.”

The Statement of claim also alleges that Facebook did not take reasonable steps during this period to protect its users’ personal information from unauthorised disclosure.

It adds that  Facebook has been unable to provide the Commissioner with a precise record of the personal information Facebook disclosed to the ‘This is Your Digital Life’ app’s developers.

“That significant failing produces a circumstance in which anomalies may not be detected, or effectively investigated, in order to protect the personal information that the entity still holds. It underscores the shortcomings in Facebook’s attempts to protect its Users’ personal information from unauthorised disclosure,” the claim says.

The Federal Court can impose fines up to $1,700,000 for each serious and/or repeated interference with privacy.

The case is against Facebook in US and its registered HQ in Ireland. In 2018 moved responsibility for 1.5 billion accounts from Ireland to the US in a bid to escape moves Europe’s stricter privacy laws. The company routinely fights legal action against it on jurisdictional grounds, but is not always successful.

Last July, the company paid a record US$5 billion fine for “deceiving” users about their control over their data privacy in a lawsuit by the US consumer regulator, the Federal Trade Commission, over Cambridge Analytica case. Last October, concluded a case by the UK Information Commissioner over Cambridge Analytica with the maximum £500,000 (AU$1m) fine.