Face­book says Rus­sians ‘scraped’ data

Some purged ac­counts linked to firms build­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware.

The Citizens' Voice - - WORLD - BY JACK NICAS

SAN FRAN­CISCO — On the same day Face­book an­nounced that it had car­ried out its big­gest purge yet of Amer­i­can ac­counts ped­dling dis­in­for­ma­tion, the com­pany qui­etly made an­other rev­e­la­tion: It had re­moved 66 ac­counts, pages and apps linked to Rus­sian firms that build fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware for the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment.

Face­book said Thurs­day that it had re­moved any ac­counts as­so­ci­ated with So­cialdatahub and its sis­ter firm, Fubutech, be­cause the com­pa­nies vi­o­lated its poli­cies by scrap­ing data from the so­cial net­work.

“Face­book has rea­son to be­lieve your work for the gov­ern­ment has in­cluded match­ing pho­tos from in­di­vid­u­als’ per­sonal so­cial me­dia ac­counts in or­der to iden­tify them,” the com­pany said in a cease-and-de­sist let­ter to So­cialdatahub that was dated Tues­day and viewed by The New York Times.

Face­book gave the com­pa­nies un­til Fri­day to de­tail what data they had taken and then delete it all.

The case il­lus­trates a new re­al­ity for Face­book. So­cialDatahub and Fubutech have been around for at least four years, re­ly­ing in part on Face­book data to build prod­ucts that might alarm some civil-lib­erty ad­vo­cates.

As Face­book is tak­ing a closer look at its own prod­ucts amid in­creas­ing scru­tiny and pub­lic outcry, it is in­creas­ingly find­ing ex­am­ples of com­pa­nies that have been ex­ploit­ing its global so­cial net­work for ques­tion­able ends.

So­cialdatahub and Fubutech also present an­other chal­lenge be­cause, Face­book said, at least some of their data col­lec­tion oc­curred through web scrap­ing.

Scrap­ing is a rudi­men­tary tech­nique in which com­puter pro­gram­mers can pull in­for­ma­tion off a web­site. It is dif­fi­cult to de­tect and pre­vent, Face­book said. Scrap­ing can pull any data that’s left pub­lic on a Face­book pro­file — and, the­o­ret­i­cally, more pri­vate data about the user’s Face­book friends.

Ar­tur Khachuyan, the 26-year-old chief ex­ec­u­tive of So­cialdatahub and Fubutech, said in an in­ter­view Fri­day that Face­book had deleted his com­pa­nies’ ac­counts un­fairly.

Fubutech does build fa­cial-recog­ni­tion soft­ware for the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and uses Face­book data, but it scrapes Google search re­sults for that in­for­ma­tion — not Face­book, he said. And So­cialdatahub’s main prod­uct — a sys­tem that as­signs scores to Rus­sian ci­ti­zens based on their so­cial­me­dia pro­files for in­sur­ers and banks — re­quired per­mis­sion from the users it rates, he said.

Khachuyan said he taught Rus­sian jour­nal­ism stu­dents how to scrape the web and that two of them had scraped Face­book for the pub­lic pro­files of their class­mates. He be­lieves Face­book mis­took the stu­dents’ ac­tiv­ity for his com­pa­nies’ work.

“Maybe it’s a rea­son to de­ac­ti­vate our ac­counts,” Khachuyan said. “But I don’t know why Face­book deletes In­sta­gram ac­count of my dog.” That ac­count, for “Mars the Blue Corgi,” had 176 fol­low­ers.

Katy Dormer, a Face­book spokes­woman, re­jected Khachuyan’s claim that Face­book had con­flated his stu­dents’ ac­tiv­ity with the ac­tions of his com­pa­nies.

“We don’t take these ac­tions lightly,” she said. “The fact we took the ac­tion and sent the let­ter means we saw enough ev­i­dence.”

Face­book’s re­moval of So­cialdatahub and Fubutech re­flects a larger prob­lem for the so­cial me­dia com­pany as it eval­u­ates its re­la­tion­ship with third-party apps that have ac­cess to peo­ple’s Face­book data.

In the wake of re­port­ing by The New York Times and oth­ers that the po­lit­i­cal firm Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica har­vested the data of more than 87 mil­lion Face­book users through a third-party app, Face­book an­nounced that it was re­view­ing its data-shar­ing pol­icy with apps. Af­ter an au­dit, the com­pany said it was sus­pend­ing 200 apps. Some have since had their ac­cess to Face­book re­stored.

Khachuyan said the let­ter from Face­book had sur­prised him, par­tic­u­larly be­cause his com­pa­nies have been op­er­at­ing the same way for years.

“All in Rus­sia know about us for min­i­mum four years,” he said. “I don’t know why that Face­book sent that only now.”

He said Fubutech scraped data from the web, par­tic­u­larly Google search and the Rus­sian search en­gine Yan­dex, to build a data­base of Rus­sian ci­ti­zens and their im­ages that the gov­ern­ment can use for fa­cial recog­ni­tion. “We don’t know ex­actly what they do with it,” he said.

“Maybe gov­ern­ment clients con­nect our soft­ware to CC cam­eras,” Khachuyan said, re­fer­ring to closed-cir­cuit cam­eras. “Maybe they con­nect it to so­cial pro­files.”

Khachuyan com­pared Fubutech to Palan­tir, the Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia, tech com­pany that does data anal­y­sis for the U.S. gov­ern­ment. At one point in a 30-minute phone in­ter­view, he said the Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry was a client but later said he could not name Fubutech’s gov­ern­ment clients.

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