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A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone. Photo by Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Facebook takes baby steps on privacy after scandal over user data collection

NEW YORK — Engulfed in a scandal over its users’ privacy, Facebook has opted to take little more than baby steps to fix the problem.

From the company’s perspective, that makes perfect sense. Stronger safeguards on user data might damage Facebook’s core business: using what it knows about you to sell ads that target your interests.

Facebook is proposing only narrow countermeasures that address the specifics of the furor over Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that worked for Donald Trump’s campaign and is accused of improperly obtaining data from some 50 million Facebook users for the purpose of influencing voters.

Those measures, announced Wednesday by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, mostly involve new limits on what Facebook apps can do with the user data they collect. One such errant app was central to the Cambridge Analytica debacle.

But those steps don’t get at what many outsiders see as bigger problems at Facebook: its rampant data collection from users, its embrace of political ads that target individuals and small demographic groups with precision, and its apparent inability to end malicious use of its service by governments, shady corporations and criminal elements.

“They’re being very deft and creating the illusion of trust,” said Scott Galloway, a New York University professor of marketing. But by focusing on the mechanics of how apps work on its service, he said, Facebook is failing to take meaningful action to ensure it’s not “weaponized” by scammers, manipulators and other nefarious types.

Ultimately, Facebook is a data-collection company and without user data, it would wither and die. But how much data it sucks in, and what it does with it, is a question of major public importance — one that touches on the health of democracy itself, privacy advocates say.

What you can do to protect your personal data on Facebook

It’s just not a question that Facebook itself shows any sign of wanting to address.

Facebook made $40 billion in advertising revenue last year, and that’s expected to rise 22 percent this year to $49 billion, according to research firm eMarketer. Wall Street analysts who follow Facebook don’t seem worried yet, despite the sharp drop in the company’s stock this week. That’s because analysts don’t expect the company to have to change the way it does business.

Like its closest rival Google, Facebook offers companies an unparalleled way to target people for advertising, right down to their most granular details. These companies can, for instance, single out users who live in Kansas and have listed Bernie Sanders and same-sex marriage as their interests — which is exactly what some Russian-linked ads did as part of a propaganda campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, apps — from personality quizzes to games (remember “FarmVille?”) — have been able to harvest user information since 2007, when Facebook opened its service to outside developers. Facebook has since restricted what types of data apps could access, notably in 2014, but as the Cambridge Analytica debacle shows, loopholes remained.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytics outcry, Facebook is once again cracking down — but solely on apps. Its new restrictions limit what data apps can access and will cut them off from your information if you don’t use them for three months. Facebook will also conduct its own audits of apps that appear to suck in large quantities of data, although it has said nothing about allowing independent audits, leaving users no alternative but to trust that Facebook itself has their interests at heart.


AP Technology Writer Mae Anderson contributed to this story.