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Colorado was potential target of Facebook data breach, IT expert says

April 10, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018 at 8:56 pm
Caption +
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reacts to a question about the hotel he stayed in last night as he testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON - Colorado's status as an election swing state likely made it a target for the kind of data breach described by Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg during his congressional testimony Tuesday, says a Boulder-based information technology expert.

Zuckerberg was grilled by senators outraged that a British political consulting firm could collect profile information on 87 million Facebook users to give its clients an advantage in the last U.S. election. The clients allegedly included associates of President Donald Trump.

In addition, Russian agents allegedly posted Facebook ads and propaganda intended to sway the election in favor of Trump.

"We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a mistake," Zuckerberg said in an apology as he began testifying.

Facebook, a social networking website, allows users to create customized profiles that list their names, occupations and other personal information. Members can add other users as "friends," exchange messages with them, and share photos and videos. They also can receive notifications of other users' activity.

By early 2018, it had more than 2.2 billion active monthly users worldwide.

Facebook earned nearly $41 billion last year, and some of the revenue came from the kind of political ads allegedly posted by Russian agents.

Congress has responded with threats to impose tough regulations on Facebook to ensure it cannot be manipulated to influence U.S. elections. Lawmakers also expressed concern for the privacy of its users.

The 33-year-old billionaire tried to reassure senators that Facebook users maintain ultimate control over posting, deleting or sharing their personal information.

But he repeatedly said he did not know the answers to some questions about which profiles were tapped by consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Among the questions was whether the data breaches were concentrated in certain states.

"I don't have that information," Zuckerberg said.

Casey Fiesler, a University of Colorado information science assistant professor, said the likelihood was high the voter profiling by Cambridge Analytica was concentrated in places such as Colorado.

"We, of course, can't say for sure whether Colorado would have been targeted specifically, but it makes intuitive sense that swing states would have been particularly important," Fiesler told Colorado Politics.

The consulting firm used the Facebook data to help design political ads and display them to website users most likely to be influenced, based on personality profiles.

"It is possible that this kind of technique was used in Colorado, both targeting Facebook ads and potentially stump speeches tailored to personality traits," Fiesler said.

Zuckerberg answered questions for 5 ½ hours during a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He is scheduled for a second hearing before a House committee Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., was on the joint committee that questioned Zuckerberg, and he asked how much privacy Facebook users can expect on the website.

When users delete their information, do "all backups get wiped?" Gardner asked.

"That is certainly the way it is supposed to work," Zuckerberg said.

Gardner also asked whether Facebook could monitor the articles that its users choose to read.

"I think there is functionality like that, yes," Zuckerberg replied.

"Do you think users understand that?" Gardner asked.

Zuckerberg said he was uncertain how much his customers knew about whether their use of Facebook could be monitored by the company.

The public outrage that led to the congressional hearings this week has included Colorado's attorney general demanding more information from Facebook about data mining for user profiles.

Nathan Schneider, a University of Colorado media studies professor, said Facebook's privacy problems show it has grown too large for control by a few corporate executives.

"I believe it's incredibly important right now to consider alternative ownership models for companies like Facebook," Schneider said. "It was designed to be a high-risk, high-growth venture with strong investor backing and almost unilateral control for Mr. Zuckerberg.

"For the global media utility that Zuckerberg now aspires to run, this is no longer appropriate."

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