Facebook pressed over role in people smuggling

Facebook and WhatsApp have become the media of choice for people smugglers, says UN official

File photo: conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose.

WASHINGTON: A United Nations migration official called Thursday for Facebook to police its site and its WhatsApp messaging subsidiary for use by abusive human smugglers.

Leonard Doyle, director of media and communication at the UN International Organization for Migration, said that Facebook and WhatsApp have become the media of choice for people smugglers in the Middle East and Africa to advertise their services and make arrangements with migrants.

But many of those groups abuse migrants, taking travelers hostage and beating them to demand ransoms from their families, he said.

As it now blocks violent radical groups like Daesh from promoting itself on Facebook pages, Facebook should police people smugglers doing the same thing, Doyle said in an online discussion hosted by Refugees Deeply, a migration-focused media group.

“They have turbocharged the access to smugglers,” he said.

“Big tech companies have a huge responsibility that they are not living up to.”

Smugglers use all kinds of social media and messaging applications to communicate, but Facebook’s pages, private groups and the Facebook Live video app, as well as WhatsApp, are by far the most popular, according to experts.

Leonard noted that people searching for child pornography on social media can get warnings that what they are doing is illegal.

Facebook and others need to do the same to help stem migration abuses, Doyle said.

Facebook especially needs to help crack down on the extortion taking place, with West Africans the leading targets. Smugglers kidnap migrants, torture them and use social media to send pictures and video to families to demand money.

“We cannot continue to allow people to be tortured, Doyle said.

He said that Facebook has largely ignored his overtures, putting him in contact with low-level officials who do little to help.

“They say its hard, but they don’t really try,” he said.

“The motivation of the big tech companies is to get customers…. There’s a kind of race for market domination in the developing world.”

Zuckerberg insists he’s fit for the job

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg said on Wednesday he remains the best person to lead the social network despite acknowledging mistakes in underestimating abuse of the platform.

Zuckerberg told reporters on a conference call he accepted responsibility for the hijacking of private user data and other abuses, but when asked if he remained the best person to lead Facebook, he answered “Yes”.

“I think life is about learning from the mistakes and figuring out how to move forward,” he said.

“When you’re building something like Facebook which is unprecedented in the world, there are things that you’re going to mess up. What I think people should hold us accountable for is if we are learning from our mistakes.”

Facebook Inc. said data on most of its 2 billion users could have been accessed improperly, giving fresh evidence of the ways the social-media giant failed to protect people’s privacy while generating billions of dollars in revenue from the information.

Feature removed

The company said it removed a feature that let users enter phone numbers or email addresses into Facebook’s search tool to find other people. That was being used by malicious actors to scrape public profile information, it said.
“Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way,” the company said. “So we have now disabled this feature.” 

Facebook also said data on as many as 87 million people, most of them in the US, may have been improperly shared with research firm Cambridge Analytica. This is Facebook’s first official confirmation of the possible scope of the data leak, which was previously estimated at roughly 50 million. It has resulted in calls from legislators and policymakers for greater regulation of social media, helping to shave billion of dollars from the company’s market value.

Zuckerberg said 87 million was a high estimate of those affected by the breach, based on the maximum number of connections to users who downloaded an academic researcher’s quiz that scooped up personal profiles.

“I’m quite confident it will not be more than 87 million, it could well be less,” he said.

To remedy the problem, Zuckerberg said Facebook must “rethink our relationship with people across everything we do” and that it will take a number of years to regain user trust.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility was and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake,” Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said on a conference call with reporters. “We’re broadening our view of our responsibility.” 

Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committee on April 10 to discuss Facebook’s role in society and users’ privacy. 

About 270,000 people downloaded a personality quiz app and shared information about themselves and their friends with a researcher, who then passed along the information to Cambridge Analytica, in a move that Facebook says was against its rules. Facebook reached the 87 million figure by adding up all the unique people that those 270,000 users were friends with at the time they gave the app permission. 

Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, said it licensed data on 30 million people, countering Facebook’s 87 million estimate. Cambridge Analytica said in a tweet that it “immediately deleted the raw data from our file server, and began the process of searching for and removing any of its derivatives in our system” after Facebook contacted them to let them know data had been improperly obtained.

Facebook says it will tell people, in a notice at the top of their news feeds starting April 9, if their information may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.


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