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The Cambridge Analytica scandal continues to haunt Facebook. The company is at the center of yet another investigation connected to the incident more than 18 months after it was revealed.
This time, it's California that's seeking to bring the social giant to task: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) yesterday confirmed that he has been probing Facebook’s privacy practices following the political consultancy firm’s collection of Facebook users' data without their permission. The probe came to light as California took Facebook to court to try to force the social network to turn over key documents, including the emails of top executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.
“To see now another attorney needs to escalate the acquisition of documents shows how difficult it is to hold the company accountable and how they fight everything tooth and nail,” said David Carroll, a Parsons professor who plays a central role in the Netflix documentary about the incident called “The Great Hack.”
The escalation underscores how states are emerging as formidable privacy regulators of large tech companies, even after the federal government settled with Facebook about Cambridge Analytica and other data handling mishaps for a record $5 billion.
States are stepping up to continue the fight as critics say the Federal Trade Commission let the tech titan off too easily earlier this year. The Democratic attorneys general of both Massachusetts and D.C. have also gone to court to force Facebook to share similar documents related to the scandal and unseal internal communications about Cambridge Analytica.
Carroll called state attorneys general a “second line of defense for consumer protection” in the absence of a dedicated federal privacy regulator. Attorneys general “are picking up where the federal government has failed to meet the needs for enforcement and accountability,” he said.
Carroll also says the ongoing legal battles raise questions about the terms of the settlement the Federal Trade Commission reached with the company. My colleague Tony Romm previously reported the agency stopped short of imposing some of the tougher penalties it once considered, including imposing more direct liability for Zuckerberg. The agency also stopped short of directly questioning him.
“It shows that the settlement that granted Zuckerberg relief from liability is a real gift to him considering that AGs are still trying to get answers,” Carroll said.
States are also getting in on the antitrust fever now gripping Washington. The New York state attorney general is now leading an antitrust probe of the company, which more than 40 other states and territories have signed on to. The probe is wide-ranging, and it's likely that the law enforcement officials could take a closer look at Facebook's privacy practices as part of that probe. Attorney General Letitia James (D) has said the investigation will look into whether the company "may have endangered consumer data.”
And Facebook may have other problems. Hours before Becerra announced he was taking the company to court for documents tied to the privacy scandal, a separate trove of documents involving Facebook executives' communications were leaked that could have implications as the company is under antitrust scrutiny both at the state level and in Washington.
NBC News reports the documents show how Zuckerberg “oversaw plans to consolidate the social network's power and control competitors by treating its users' data as a bargaining chip.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Two former Twitter employees allegedly spied on the accounts of thousands of users — including dissidents of the Saudi Arabia government, according charges newly unveiled by the Justice Department yesterday, my colleagues Ellen Nakashima and Greg Bensinger report. The espionage charges raise concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of users, including dissidents, from repressive regimes.
The charges follow the arrest of one of the former employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen who is alleged to have spied on the accounts of three users on behalf of the government, Ellen and Greg report. This is the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused Saudis of spying in the United States.
Twitter restricts access to sensitive account information “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” a spokesman who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Ellen and Greg. But the case highlights the vast troves of sensitive data tech companies collect on users, such as IP addresses and payment methods, that can be used to unearth a user's locations by bad actors.
Twitter is a significant platform for political discussion for Saudi dissidents, making the government's blatant targeting of the platform all the more troubling, experts say.
Twitter isn't the only target for foreign espionage in the tech industry. Last month WhatsApp sued an Israeli software vendor for helping governments hack into the accounts of users, including activists and journalists.
NIBBLES: Airbnb will verify 100 percent of its more than 7 million listings by the end of 2020 in response to ongoing concerns over safety and scams on the platform, the company announced in a memo yesterday. The company will also launch a 24/7 hotline so that users can talk to a person at Airbnb with immediate concerns, addressing long-standing complaints about its customer service.
Airbnb customers have lobbed complaints at the company for years over its customer service practices, but a recent VICE investigation by Allie Conti uncovering a nationwide network of hosts scamming users with fake listings casts renewed scrutiny on the company. The new safety policies also address unauthorized “party houses,” which the company has banned after a deadly shooting at an Airbnb house in California this month.
“People need to feel like they can trust our community, and that they can trust Airbnb when something does go wrong,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in a statement.
Airbnb will also expand its use of human screening of “high-risk reservations” flagged by its AI. The company will refund or rebook guests if the rental they book doesn't meet the company's accuracy standards beginning this December.
BYTES: Google is considering changes to its political ads policy a week after Twitter announced that it would ban all political ads. The company has held internal meetings on the issue and could share more details with employees about its plans within the next week, Emily Glazer reports for the Wall Street Journal.
It's not yet clear what the changes will be, but some employees think they could be related to how the company allows ad buyers to target such ads. The microtargeting of political ads on social media has come under greater scrutiny in recent weeks as critics raise concerns about how politicians can abuse advertising tools to spread messages to narrow audiences. Facebook is holding the line on allowing political ads on its platform, but the company is considering limits on microtargeting, according to a recent NBC News report.
Google's timeline for implementing any new policy was not clear. Any change would apply across Google's platforms, including search and YouTube, a Google spokesperson told the Journal.
— News from the private sector:
-- Alphabet's board of directors has opened an investigation into how executives handled claims of sexual harassment and other misconduct, Jennifer Elias at CNBC reports. The board will task an independent subcommittee with the investigation and has already hired a law firm to assist with the process. The investigation follows two high-profile cases of sexual misconduct at the company that have ignited ongoing worker protests against gender-based discrimination.
Shareholders of the company sued the board in January for allegedly covering up credible sexual assault claims against former Android co-founder Andy Rubin. Google then paid Rubin a $90 million exit package, the New York Times reported. The newly launched investigation will also address claims of inappropriate conduct by Chief Legal Officer David Drummond. A former employee accused Drummond of having multiple affairs at the company and fathering a child with her, then neglecting to support the child.
Alphabet did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.
— News from the public sector:
— News about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- The Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law will host its annual Color of Surveillance conference on November 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a focus on the monitoring of poor and working people.
- The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will host a hearing on “Hijacking our Heroes: Exploiting Veterans through Disinformation on Social Media” on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. EST.
- The House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will host its fourth hearing on online platforms and market power, focusing on the perspectives of the anitrust agencies, on Wednesday at 2pm.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings at The New York Times's Dealbook conference: “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain.”