Israel investigates Facebook over privacy scandal amid challenges of new digital age

Updated 2018-03-27 09:48:04 Xinhua

Israel's Privacy Protection Authority announced at the end of last week that it has launched an investigation into Internet giant Facebook's reported misuse of information and possible violation of Israeli privacy laws.

A justice ministry official quoted in the Israeli media said the investigation was not labeled as a crime yet but could evolve into one later on.

The announcement came days after media reported that information obtained from about 50 million Facebook user accounts had been transferred to Cambridge Analytica, a British political data firm, to influence election campaigns, including the 2016 U.S. presidential run.

It is possible that a large number of these accounts were of Israelis who hold dual citizenship and have voting rights in the United States.

There was worldwide condemnation towards the scandal which forced Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to apologize.

"We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you," Zuckerberg posted on his page. But that did not stave off hordes of criticism towards him and his company.

According to the Israeli Internet Association (IIA), almost half of the country's population use the popular social media platform, leaving many Israelis vulnerable to privacy infringement.

In a country where cyber security is a major sub-sector of the hi-tech industry, it seems technology is not the solution this time around.

"The response is not technological," said Dr. Tal Pavel, head of Cyber Security Studies of the Information System Programs at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo. "We need to achieve a new balance between users and information giants."

Facebook may be currently making the headlines, but other large firms such as Google or Amazon face the same issues.

Adaptation is needed on both sides - firms must curb their actions and users must tread carefully in this new, still forming, virtual world.

"New rules of the game have to be established and enforced," Pavel told Xinhua.

In a statement released by the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI), Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior research fellow at the IDI, outlined a number of steps she believes need to be taken in order to avoid a similar event in Israel's next general elections slated for late 2019.

"Candidates and political parties should be prohibited from contracting companies that possess the technology to mine and measure people's personality traits," read the statement.

In response to the allegations against Facebook, it's stock took a major dive and dropped 7 percent as the news spread.

Still, the social media platform is growing at an exponential rate in the developing world. The #deletefacebook movement on Twitter, intended at encouraging people to delete their accounts will hardly make a dent in the firm's long-term profitability.

This means that in order to reign in the information giants, a global effort will be needed.

"They need to recognize the limits of their power, be less greedy, not trade with our information and act with greater transparency," said Pavel, "This age will not only change us, but will also change the huge companies."

For this, a first step has been taken in Israel with the announcement of the investigation. In other countries, steps are being taken to take legal action to protect these huge amounts of data at the hands of private firms.

Laws from the past are becoming redundant in the age of tweets and posts.

"The Privacy Protection Law in Israel...hasn't been updated in 30 years, should be reformed and made more suitable to the new challenges of the new digital reality," the IDI believed.

"We need treaties and international cooperation in order to create pressure on Facebook," said Pavel.

There are various UN resolutions dealing with the right to privacy in the digital age, but as the challenges are only being mapped out, the response is also still in its genesis.

Any technological solution to the problem will be circumvented by another technological invention according to Pavel.

Altschuler also proposes greater cooperation between governments and private firms. New legislation is clearly needed.

"Transferring personal information from private entities to government agencies must be forbidden," read the IDI statement, adding that "government authorities should be required to obtain legal authorization to make use of private information when using Big Data."

Facebook, Google and others are here to stay, ignoring them is probably unrealistic and deleting accounts in protest will not serve as a catalyst for change.

Indeed, it is a new world and that takes getting used to.

"Between countries there are very, very clear physical borders," Dr. Pavel told Xinhua, "In the digital world, these borders are now being drawn."

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