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Facebook overhauls privacy settings amid data breach outcry

The new features follow fierce criticism after it was revealed millions of Facebook users' personal data was harvested by a British firm linked to Donald Trump's 2016 campaign
AFP

Washington (AFP) – Facebook on Wednesday unveiled new privacy settings aiming to give its users more control over how their data is shared, following an outcry over hijacking of personal information at the giant social network.

The updates include easier access to Facebook’s user settings and tools to easily search for, download and delete personal data stored by Facebook.

Facebook said a new privacy shortcuts menu will allow users to quickly increase account security, manage who can see their information and activity on the site and control advertisements they see.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that privacy settings and other important tools are too hard to find and that we must do more to keep people informed,” chief privacy officer Erin Egan and deputy general counsel Ashlie Beringer said in a blog post.

“We’re taking additional steps in the coming weeks to put people more in control of their privacy.”

The new features follow fierce criticism after it was revealed millions of Facebook users’ personal data was harvested by a British firm linked to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — although Facebook said the changes have been “in the works for some time.”

Earlier this month, whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed political consulting company Cambridge Analytica obtained profiles on 50 million Facebook users via an academic researcher’s personality prediction app.

The app was downloaded by 270,000 people, but also scooped up their friends’ data without consent — as was possible under Facebook’s rules at the time.

Egan and Beringer also announced updates to Facebook’s terms of service and data policy to improve transparency about how the site collects and uses data.

Yet some analysts said Facebook and its chief Mark Zuckerberg have made similar promises in the past.

“Zuck promised easier, better privacy controls ‘in the coming weeks’ eight years ago,” said Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor who studies social media, in a comment on Twitter.

“This isn’t the first or last broken promise. The solution isn’t shifting the burden to the user because the problem is the negative externalities of the business model.”

Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor of communications, said the new privacy settings and tools “are so obviously important to users that one has to wonder why this wasn’t already done.”

She said Facebook has “some of the best talent in the industry” and that “their old interface was not a mistake, it was by design.”

Separately Wednesday, Playboy said it was deactivating all the Facebook accounts managed by the company due to the mishandling of personal data.

“The recent news about Facebook’s alleged mismanagement of users’ data has solidified our decision to suspend our activity on the platform at this time,” said a statement from Playboy.

– Deepening tech crisis –

Facebook’s move comes as authorities around the globe investigate how Facebook handles and shares private data, and with its shares having tumbled more than 15 percent, wiping out tens of billions in market value.

The crisis also threatens the Silicon Valley tech industry whose business model revolves around data collected on internet users.

The US Federal Trade Commission this week said it had launched a probe into whether the social network violated consumer protection laws or a 2011 court-approved agreement on protecting private user data.

US lawmakers were seeking to haul Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Washington to testify on the matter.

Authorities in Britain have seized data from Cambridge Analytica in their investigation, and EU officials have warned of consequences for Facebook.

Facebook has apologized for the misappropriation of data and vowed to fix the problem.

On Wednesday, six consumer and privacy organizations called upon Facebook to cease all campaign contributions and electioneer activity until they ensure the integrity of all apps on the platform.

“A company whose platform is self-admittedly powerful enough to influence elections, must stay out of them,” said a letter from the groups which include Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy.

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