Canadian regulators on Thursday found that Facebook committed “serious” breaches of local laws over its mishandling of users' personal information, announcing they would take the company to court to force it to change its privacy practices.
The new legal salvo from Canada comes after federal authorities and provincial regulators in British Columbia determined that Facebook had in place “superficial” protections for users’ data and failed to keep close watch over third-party apps that accessed that information.
Regulators began their investigation last year in response to Facebook’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy that improperly accessed the personal information of 87 million of the social site’s users. They said the incident would not have happened if Facebook had heeded their earlier warnings — dating to 2009 — and improved its privacy practices.
Canadian authorities said they sought to have Facebook “implement measures to ensure the company respects its accountability and other privacy obligations in the future.” Facebook, however, “refused to voluntarily submit to audits of its privacy policies and practices over the next five years,” according to regulators. As a result, Canada’s top data-protection watchdog said it would seek an order in court to force Facebook to comply. Under current law, they said they lacked the ability to bring steep fines in response to Facebook’s violations.
“Facebook’s refusal to act responsibly is deeply troubling given the vast amount of sensitive personal information users have entrusted to this company,” Daniel Therrien, the privacy commissioner of Canada, said in a statement. “Their privacy framework was empty, and their vague terms were so elastic that they were not meaningful for privacy protection."
In a statement, Facebook said it negotiated with Canadian regulators in good faith, stressing there is “no evidence that Canadians’ data was shared with Cambridge Analytica.” Facebook said it had addressed “a number of issues raised in the report” and did offer to “enter into a compliance agreement” with Canada.
The findings in Canada illustrate Facebook’s widening regulatory woes around the world. On Wednesday, the social-media giant said it would set aside $3 billion in anticipation that it could have to pay as much as $5 billion to settle a privacy investigation in the United States. The fine, first reported by The Washington Post, could accompany additional penalties targeting both Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.
Earlier Thursday, Irish regulators said they had opened a new probe of Facebook — this time focused on reports that it mishandled passwords for hundreds of millions of users on Facebook and its photo-sharing app Instagram. The passwords had been stored in plain text, exposed to company employees, though Facebook has said there has been no evidence of abuse. The investigation is the 11th such inquiry opened by Irish regulators, who have chief oversight of Facebook under tough new privacy rules implemented in Europe last year.
In Canada, regulators on Thursday said the “risk is high” their citizens’ data might be disclosed to third-party apps and used in ways they never intended as a result of Facebook’s refusal to implement any changes to its practices.
The country’s investigation began in March 2018, following initial reports that Cambridge Analytica — through a quiz app created by an outside researcher — harnessed social data on users and their interests to better target political messages at them. The app amassed data not only about those who downloaded it but also about their friends, a form of collection Facebook had allowed on the site for years.
Canadian regulators said that policy, since revised, never had been clear to users. It was disclosed only at the time a user registered for Facebook. A user’s affected friends never might have been aware of how exactly their data had been used as a result.
Canadian authorities estimated that 622,000 local users had been affected by Cambridge Analytica’s efforts, though Facebook argued that there is “no known evidence” of that. To that end, Facebook rejected Canada’s conclusions, argued Canada had no authority to order a change in its policies and opted against implementing any of the government’s recommendations, including new efforts to better inform users about the use of their data and the apps that may have accessed their information.
Under Canadian law, privacy watchdogs said they lacked the ability to force Facebook to comply or bring steep fines in response to its violations. Instead, companies like Facebook “can say to a regulator, ‘Thank you very much for your concern on matters of law, but we actually disagree, and we will continue as we were,’ ” Therrien, the country’s privacy commissioner, said on a call with reporters. He called on Parliament to change the law. “It is completely unacceptable.”