Sensitive Facebook documents seized by Parliament
26 November 2018
Britain now has access to a bunch of internal Facebook documents that it believes are highly relevant to its investigations into the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Back in 2015, a technology firm names Six4Three LLC approached the Superior Court in San Mateo, California and claimed that it had access to sensitive documents that proved that Facebook carried out mass surveillance on millions of users in a covert manner for years. The documents included “confidential emails and messages between Facebook senior executives”.
“Facebook continued to explore and implement ways to track users’ location, to track and read their texts, to access and record their microphones on their phones, to track and monitor their usage of competitive apps on their phones, and to track and monitor their calls,” Six4Three told the court.
Earlier this year, Six4Three submitted fresh documents in support of its allegations before the Court. The firm claimed that not only did Facebook harvest text messages but also photos in users’ devices that had not been uploaded to Facebook. At the same time, Facebook had the capability to remotely activate Bluetooth to determine the location of a user without his/her authorisation.
“Facebook made partial disclosures around this time regarding privacy settings but did not fully disclose that it had caused certain settings to lapse after a period of time.
“Facebook disclosed publicly that it was reading text messages in order to authenticate users more easily … [but] this partial disclosure failed to state accurately the type of data Facebook was accessing, the timeframe over which it had accessed it, and the reasons for accessing the data of these Android users.
“Facebook used this data to give certain Facebook products and features an unfair competitive advantage over other social applications on Facebook Platform,” the firm told the court.
Parliament seizes the docs from Six4Three
Recently, during a business trip to London, the founder of Six4Three LLC was in for a rude surprise when he was confronted in his hotel by a serjeant-at-arms sent by the Parliament. He was immediately ordered to hand over all sensitive documents to the Parliament that contained details about Facebook’s data privacy policies and decisions.
The founder was presented with a two-hour deadline to hand over the said documents, failing which he was warned that he could face imprisonment or fines.
Damian Collins, the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, who invoked a rare parliamentary mechanism to accomplish the seizure of the documents from Six4Three’s founder, justified the move by stating that the documents contained “information of very high public interest” and that the Parliament’s hand was forced due to Facebook’s failure to provide any answers in response to the government’s investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“The Committee’s interest in the documents we have requested relates to their relevance to our ongoing inquiry into disinformation and fake news. As you know, we have asked many questions of Facebook about its policies on sharing user data with developers, how these have been enforced, and how the company identifies activity by bad actors.
“We believe that the documents we have ordered from Six4Three could contain important information about this which is of a high level of public interest. We are also interested to know whether the policies of Facebook, as expressed within these documents, are consistent with the public statements the company has made on the same issues,” Collins said.
Collins’ made the statement in response to an email from Richard Allan, vice president of public policy at Facebook, who alleged that the documents were under seal by Court order in the U.S. and since the matter was sub-judice, the contents of the documents should not be made public.
Mr. Allan also stated that allegations made by Six4Three against Facebook were “entirely without merit” and repeated filings by the firm demonstrated that the lawsuit was more about attacking Facebook than figiting a credible legal claim.
“The materials obtained by the DCMS committee are subject to a protective order of the San Mateo Superior Court restricting their disclosure. We have asked the DCMS committee to refrain from reviewing them and to return them to counsel or to Facebook. We have no further comment,” said Facebook to The Observer.
In a separate tweet on Sunday morning, Mr. Collins announced that “the @CommonsCMS has received the documents it ordered from Six4Three relating to Facebook. I have reviewed them and the committee will discuss how we will proceed early next week. Under UK law & parliamentary privilege we can publish papers if we choose to as part of our inquiry.”
Facebook to be confronted with fresh documents
Mr. Allan is slated to attend a session hosted by the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘fake news’ on Tuesday where he could be confronted with facts mentioned in the seized documents and explain Facebook’s privacy and data security policies.
The session will also have in attendance the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, the deputy Information Commissioner Steve Wood, members of the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and parliamentarians from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg was invited to attend the “grilling” session but he refused the invitation twice and Facebook offered to send Mr. Allan in his place, which was accepted by the Committee.
The Committee, however, still maintains that “Mark Zuckerberg is the appropriate person to answer important questions about data privacy, safety, security and sharing. The recent New York Times investigation raises further questions about how recent data breaches were allegedly dealt with within Facebook, and when the senior leadership team became aware of the breaches and the spread of Russian disinformation.”