K Shanmugam presses Facebook on lack of transparency over Cambridge Analytica saga

A Facebook logo in Frankfurt, Germany September 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam questioned Facebook in Parliament on Thursday (22 March) on why the social media giant had not been open when it first found out about a massive breach of its user data arising from the Cambridge Analytica (CA) saga.

Shanmugam’s pointed questions directed at Simon Milner, Facebook’s vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific, during the hearing for the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods come after media reports in the past week revealed that personal data of 50 million Facebook users were obtained by CA, a UK analytics firm, in part to help Donald Trump in his 2016 US presidential election campaign.

In 2014, CA hired a researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to gather basic profile information of Facebook users along with what they chose to “Like.” Some 270,000 Facebook users downloaded Kogan’s app and the researcher was able to collect data of 50 million people.

Kogan later passed the information without Facebook’s knowledge to CA, which then used it to reach voters with hyper-targeted messaging and advertising based on their psychological profiles.

Pointing out that the saga constituted a major breach of Facebook’s policy, which the company discovered in 2015, Shanmugam said, “You do not inform the users (then), which is very odd, and inexplicable and one would say, inexcusable. You do not tell the public about it. And it’s contrary to everything you have stated about the importance of protecting data, and protecting users’ data.

“We then fast forward through last year, nothing. This year, UK parliament, questions were asked. From my perspective, those questions were capable of being answered only in one way, which is to come out with the truth. And that didn’t happen,” said Shanmugam, referring to Milner’s answers to a UK select committee on fake news on 8 February this year.

Denying any wrongdoing and dishonesty in answering to the UK committee, Milner said that “in hindsight” he could have given a fuller answer but could not do so given the context of the hearing then.

“I felt that at the time I was giving truthful answers to questions. Now in hindsight, especially given recent events, I wish I had said more but at that time…it is really only the events of the last few days and the things that have come to light,” said Milner.

During the sometimes fiery exchange,  Milner insisted that he was being open in his answers to Shanmugam and the Select Committee and questioned the minister on the relevance of his questions concerning developments outside of Singapore.

This prompted a strong response from Shanmugam who said the questions on exchanges between Facebook and other jurisdictions were very relevant to Singapore in establishing the degree of trust the government could place in Facebook.

“Facebook can be trusted to answer questions when asked, Facebook can be trusted to be a reliable partner, that the government of Singapore can depend on Facebook to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

“If you thought that you could turn up here today, not answer questions on CA, and explain (away) your answers today with your answers five weeks ago to a different parliament. We are all sovereign parliaments but we look at your conduct all over the world,” Shanmugam said.