Canadians who use Facebook may have had their private messages sent through the platform accessed as part of a massive data harvesting scandal that has rocked the company in recent weeks.
Speaking before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, a senior leader at Facebook confirmed for the first time before Canadian officials that he could not rule out the possibility of private messages sent by Canadians being accessed and shared by app developers.
“It is possible that private messages were shared in small amounts as part of that,” said Robert Sherman, deputy privacy officer of Facebook Inc., who addressed the committee from California.
“I believe it’s possible but it’s something that we need to confirm.”
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Facebook is in the midst of an unprecedented backlash over revelations it allowed the developers of an app called Your Digital Life to harvest data from roughly 87 million users. The data ranged from everything from the likes and locations of users to, apparently, private messages they sent to other users.
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Your Digital Life then allegedly sold that data to Cambridge Analytica, the political analysis firm that used the data to allegedly build voter profiles and design targeted ads aimed at citizens in the United Kingdom and United States.
That targeting was then used to support the “Leave” camp during the U.K. Brexit vote and the presidential campaign of now-U.S. President Donald Trump.
News that private messages may have been part of the data gobbled up and sold to Cambridge Analytica emerged last week when the developer of Your Digital Life confirmed it in media interviews.
Facebook indicated in the notices it has begun issuing to some users whose information was shared, either from having a friend who granted permissions to the app or if they did so themselves, that their messages may be among the data collected.
However, the comments made by Facebook officials to MPs on Thursday marked the first time the company had directly publicly confirmed that Canadian users may be among those whose messages might have been hoovered up and sold.
The appearances by Sherman, as well as Kevin Chan, head of Facebook Canada, are part of an ongoing study by the committee of the scandal that has engulfed Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in recent weeks.
An estimated 272 people in Canada downloaded Your Digital Life.
That led to the larger total of roughly 662,000 Canadians who were friends with those 272 people having their data harvested as well.
Chris Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistleblower who revealed the harvesting scandal, will also appear before the committee as part of the study into the matter.
It is expected that appearance could come before the end of April.