Political consultancy Cambridge Analytica wouldn't have been able to harvest data from tens of millions of Facebook users if the Federal Trade Commission had enforced its privacy agreement with company, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said Tuesday at an oversight hearing.
“Cambridge Analytica should never have happened,” Blumenthal told the FTC commissioners. “It would never have happened if the consent order reached by the FTC with Facebook had been vigorously and adequately enforced.”
Earlier this year, the FTC said it was investigating whether Facebook violated a 2012 consent decree by allowing data about its users to be transferred to Cambridge Analytica.
Blumenthal said Tuesday that the FTC “has fallen short” when it comes to policing tech companies. “I have been frustrated that there has been no cost to Facebook for catastrophic failure to protect consumers,” the lawmaker said.
Cambridge Analytica, now defunct, received the data for up to 87 million Facebook users from researcher Aleksandr Kogan, who obtained the information in 2014 through the personality quiz app "thisisyourdigitallife." Only 270,000 Facebook users downloaded Kogan's app, but he was able to gather data about many of those users' contacts.
In April of 2015, Facebook stopped allowing developers to access data about users' friends. But in 2014, when Kogan's app scraped the data, Facebook allowed developers to glean information about users' friends, subject to their privacy settings. Facebook's terms of service prohibited developers from sharing that information.
On Tuesday, Blumenthal also criticized Google for having waited more than seven months to notify people that Google+ exposed consumers' data to outside parties.
“If we let Facebook and Google police themselves, set their own goalposts, make their own rules, they will always come up short,” he told the commissioners. “We need a commitment from you to end the cycle of impunity.”
He also blasted “big tech” in general, and suggested that some Silicon Valley companies may be violating antitrust laws.
“Big tech, maybe, is no longer entitled to be as big as it is,” he said. “There may be nothing that prohibits the amassment of market power, but the misuse of that power can violate antitrust laws.”