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Joint federal/BC investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

May 1, 2019

Privacy Commissioner plans to take Facebook to federal court 

On April 29, 2019, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (“OPC”) released the result of their joint investigation into Facebook, Inc. in connection with Cambridge Analytica. In PIPEDA Report of Findings #2019-002, both Commissioners conclude that Facebook had violated the federal and British Columbia privacy statutes. 

The investigation stemmed from revelations that personal information of users of a third party app on the Facebook platform was later used by third parties for targeted political messaging. The investigation focussed on: (i) consent of users, both those who installed an app and their friends, whose information was disclosed by to the apps, and in particular to the “thisisyourdigitallife” or TYDL App; (ii) safeguards against unauthorized access, use and disclosure by apps; and (iii) accountability for the information under Facebook’s control.

The OPC reports that they were disappointed with Facebook’s “lack of engagement” with their investigation, with many of the OPC’s questions going unanswered, or the answers provided being deficient. The OPC summarized its findings as follows: 

  1. Facebook failed to obtain valid and meaningful consent of installing users. Facebook relied on apps to obtain consent from users for its disclosures to those apps, but Facebook was unable to demonstrate that: (a) the TYDL App actually obtained meaningful consent for its purposes, including potentially, political purposes; or (b) Facebook made reasonable efforts, in particular by reviewing privacy communications, to ensure that the TYDL App, and apps in general, were obtaining meaningful consent from users.
  2. Facebook also failed to obtain meaningful consent from friends of installing users. Facebook relied on overbroad and conflicting language in its privacy communications that was clearly insufficient to support meaningful consent. That language was presented to users, generally on registration, in relation to disclosures that could occur years later, to unknown apps for unknown purposes. Facebook further relied, unreasonably, on installing users to provide consent on behalf of each of their friends, often counting in the hundreds, to release those friends’ information to an app, even though the friends would have had no knowledge of that disclosure.
  3. Facebook had inadequate safeguards to protect user information. Facebook relied on contractual terms with apps to protect against unauthorized access to users’ information, but then put in place superficial, largely reactive, and thus ineffective, monitoring to ensure compliance with those terms. Furthermore, Facebook was unable to provide evidence of enforcement actions taken in relation to privacy related contraventions of those contractual requirements.
  4. Facebook failed to be accountable for the user information under its control. Facebook did not take responsibility for giving real and meaningful effect to the privacy protection of its users. It abdicated its responsibility for the personal information under its control, effectively shifting that responsibility almost exclusively to users and Apps. Facebook relied on overbroad consent language, and consent mechanisms that were not supported by meaningful implementation. Its purported safeguards with respect to privacy, and implementation of such safeguards, were superficial and did not adequately protect users’ personal information. The sum of these measures resulted in a privacy protection framework that was empty.

The OPC characterized these findings as particularly concerning, as its previous investigation of Facebook in 2009 found similar issues, leading the OPC to the conclusion that Facebook had not taken the recommendations from that investigation seriously. In this investigation, the OPC made the following recommendations:

Facebook should implement measures, including adequate monitoring, to ensure that it obtains meaningful and valid consent from installing users and their friends. That consent must: (i) clearly inform users about the nature, purposes and consequences of the disclosures; (ii) occur in a timely manner, before or at the time when their personal information is disclosed; and (iii) be express where the personal information to be disclosed is sensitive. ...

Facebook should implement an easily accessible mechanism whereby users can: (i) determine, at any time, clearly what apps have access to what elements of their personal information [including by virtue of the app having been installed by one of the user’s friends]; (ii) the nature, purposes and consequences of that access; and (iii) change their preferences to disallow all or part of that access.

Facebook’s retroactive review and resulting notifications should cover all apps. Further, the resulting notifications should include adequate detail for [each user] to understand the nature, purpose and consequences of disclosures that may have been made to apps installed by a friend. Users should also be able to, from this notification, access the controls to switch off any ongoing disclosure to individual apps, or all apps.

Facebook disagreed with many of the conclusions and recommendations, and the OPC has indicated that it plans to seek an order from the Federal Court to implement the recommendations.

The report of findings also includes an interesting discussion about jurisdiction. Facebook asserted that the OPC did not have jurisdiction because there was no evidence that any Canadian user personal information had been disclosed to the operator of the TYDL app. Facebook also asserted that the OIPC of British Columbia did not (and could not) have jurisdiction by operation of Section 3 of the Personal Information Protection Act of British Columbia, which provides that the Act does not apply where PIPEDA applies. The OIPC and OPC pointed to the Organizations in British  Columbia Exemption Order, and also asserted that their jurisdiction over the complaint did not depend on information having been provably disclosed to the TYDL app:

44.    While the complaint may have been raised within the context of concerns about access to Facebook users’ personal information by Cambridge Analytica, as noted above, the complaint specifically requested a broad examination of Facebook’s compliance with PIPEDA to ensure Canadian Facebook users’ personal information has not been compromised and is being adequately protected. Moreover, we advised Facebook that the investigation would be examining allegations that Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica, among others, to inappropriately access users’ personal information and did not have sufficient safeguards to prevent such access.

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