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Facebook scandal knows no borders

April 6, 2018

It's not just the US: 310,000 Facebook users in Germany also had their data harvested without their knowledge — even though they weren't directly targeted. German politicians are calling for stricter regulations.

Facebook's 'like' logo
Image: picture-alliance/AP/M. J. Sanchez

After Facebook initially reported that data from 50 million users was harvested and misused by analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, the company was forced this week to revise that number up to 87 million users — 2.7 million of which are from EU countries. Their likes and political leanings were used in the 2016 United States presidential election campaign. German users had their data stolen as well — roughly 310,000 of them.

"Facebook doesn't know borders," Cologne-based social media expert Hendrik Unger told DW. "It's a global network."

Not all of these hundreds of thousands of German users participated in the poll through which Cambridge Analytica harvested personal data from Facebook users. Only 65 German users actually clicked that link. But the data scraping worked like a snowball system. The app didn't just take the data of the people who participated in the poll, but also of all of their friends.

Read more: Facebook: 'The truth has been lost'

'A network of opacity'

Facebook has known about the basics of their Cambridge Analytica data problem since 2015. But the information is only coming out now, bit by bit.

Berlin Bundesjustizministerin Katarina Barley nach Treffen mit Facebook-Delegation
German Justice Minister Katarina Barley wants stricter rules for social media companies operating in EuropeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

"Facebook is a network of opacity," Germany's justice minister Katarina Barley said in Berlin on Thursday. "Ethical convictions are sacrificed for commercial interests."

Barley is calling for EU-wide consequences for the social network.

"We are going to check whether the possibilities provided by the new European data protection regulation are sufficient," she said. "We have to establish clear legal requirements for the CEOs of social networks on a European level."

Barley also demanded that Facebook reveal how its algorithms worked to European authorities.

The Federal Cartel Office, Germany's national competition regulator, also criticized Facebook. The company had abused its market power by collecting and misusing data the way it did, Cartel Office President Andreas Mundt told newspaper Rheinische Post.

German users merely 'by-catch'

When you consider that with 309,815 people, the number of users affected in Germany equals that of a medium-sized city, it sounds like a lot. But that number pales in comparison to the 70.6 million users affected in the US. Social media expert Unger goes so far as to say the number of German users affected is "negligible."

Read more: Could departing advertisers kill Facebook?

"I'm assuming that the 310,000 German users are merely by-catch," Unger said. "The goal was to focus on Americans who are eligible to vote."

Journalist Martin Giesler says that despite the snowball effect, 65 Germans clicking on the Facebook survey alone did not lead to 310,000 German users having their data stolen.

"You have to add all those people who were friends with American users on Facebook that participated in the poll and had their data and the data of their friends scraped," Giesler told DW. "That's how you get to 310,000 affected German accounts."

"The average Facebook user has roughly 300 friends, so that number gets really high really quickly," he said.

Using Facebook comes at a price

In a telephone conference with journalists on Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that his social network didn't do enough to protect its users and to prevent data abuse.

"That was a huge mistake. It was my mistake," he said.

Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg told the Financial Times: "To this day, we still don't know what data Cambridge Analytica have."

The social network got rid of its search function that allowed you to find users solely by their email address or phone number, and it restricted access to user data for app developers. On April 11, Zuckerberg is going to testify before Congress on how his company handles user data.

In the phone conference with journalists, he emphasized that he liked the new European data protection regulation that will take effect on May 25. "I think regulations like this are very positive," he said.

Despite these public efforts, Hendrik Unger does not believe that Facebook's treatment of user data will change significantly in the future.

"Of course Zuckerberg had to apologize, for his shareholders," Unger said. "But Facebook is a free-of-charge network. So instead of money, you pay for it with your data and with being available to advertisers."

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker