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Four US govt agencies poke probe in Facebook following more 'oops, we spilled your data' shocks

Giving dozens of devs access to profiles suddenly looks dumb

No less than four federal agencies in the US are now investigating Facebook following yet more revelations over how it gave vast quantities of personal data to developers.

As well as the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the FBI, and America's financial watchdog the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are now all digging into the issue, even reportedly holding joint meetings to discuss how to proceed.

The investigations have also been expanded to look at what Facebook executives knew, when they knew it, and what they did in response, including their public statements.

That expansion comes after Facebook dumped more than 700 pages of information [PDF] at midnight on Friday in response to questions from the House Energy and Commerce committee, which has also been looking into the issue.

Amid that glut of information were two significant new admissions: it shared huge quantities of its users' personal profile data with no less than 52 hardware and software companies including Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft – but also Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Huawei. And it gave 61 Facebook app and extension developers an additional six months to comply with new policies that restricted data access and came into effect in May 2015.

Facebook is now – finally – being open about the enormous sharing and mining of personal information gathered from its addicts. Just this week it admitted to yet another "bug" that meant some blocked users were effectively unblocked and able to see some people's posts. The number of people impacted? No less than 800,000.

About time

But that openness has only come after years of stonewalling. Even for Congressmen with the power of subpoena, it has been like getting blood out of a stone. Federal investigators suspect that may be because executives knew they have been misleading investors and the public over the true extent of the sharing of personal data for several years.

The fact that Facebook's shares dove more than 10 per cent in March after it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica has accessed the profiles of tens of millions of users through an app that very few people actually used has led the SEC to wonder whether the company has been less-than-entirely truthful with investors: something that is a serious issue as a publicly listed company.

Illustration of someone taking off a mask

Cambridge Analytica dismantled for good? Nope: It just changed its name to Emerdata


Likewise, the FTC is looking into whether Facebook's approach has broken an agreement it reached with the social media giant back in 2011 over safeguarding people's private details. Due to the sheer scale of the problem – tens of millions of people – the company faces an astronomical fine.

Former FTC chairman William Kovacic noted that if each instance of sharing user data wrongly was viewed as its own separate "violation," the company – which has more than a billion people logging in every day – could face a fine that totals "more money than there is on the planet." Literally trillions of dollars.

In reality, the FTC can't impose a fine that would effectively put an American tech goliath out of business, but if found guilty, Facebook would almost certainly be at the end of the FTC's biggest ever fine, possibly as much as $1bn.

That's not all, either: Facebook inserted a disclaimer into its info dump that has already caught the attention of lawmakers. "It is important to note that the lists above are comprehensive to the best of our ability," the biz noted in the middle of the doc. "It is possible we have not been able to identify some extensions."

Boy who denied wolf

Given the fact that Facebook has repeatedly given what appear to be straight answers but with little caveats that turn out to be blatant efforts to hide damaging information, this disclaimer has already got people raising their eyebrows and wondering what else the company is hiding.

Even Facebook's home turf representative appears to have had enough. "I support a full investigation to get all the facts that is not politicized," tweeted Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), who district covers a big chunk of Silicon Valley this week. "I am hopeful that Facebook will cooperate fully and be transparent, recognizing this a matter of public trust."

In short, the chicken is finally coming home to roost. Whatever Facebook has got up to is unlikely to stay hidden with so many people with investigative powers digging into the matter.

And to be frank, when it all does emerge, a lot of academics and some tech press – and we include ourselves in that – will be fully justified in standing up and exclaiming: "We told you so." ®

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