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Editorial: Facebook must do much better

Facebook must dig deep to regain the trust of those here in America and throughout the world after the personal data of more than 50 million users was improperly obtained by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company that later provided services for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg must heed calls to appear before American and European lawmakers. More important, he must make a verifiable pledge to use the company’s considerable resources to protect both the information of its users and the ability of foreign countries to influence American elections.

In addition to Congress, attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts are investigating Facebook’s handling of personal data. Their conclusions will be important.

The New York Times and the Observer of London first exposed the privacy-bending caper. Zuckerberg, after some hesitation, launched his own information campaign via social and traditional media to quell the uproar. It won’t be easy. Facebook has exhausted many people’s patience.

The history: Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge professor, wanted to build a database of personality profiles and persuaded roughly 270,000 people to fill out a survey in an app installed in their Facebook accounts. That app allowed Kogan access to the survey takers’ Facebook friends, which rapidly expanded the available data to more than 50 million people. From there, it wasn’t difficult for algorithms to squeeze enough information to predict, among other habits, users’ political views.

This is valuable, predictive information, which Kogan later provided to Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook sent Cambridge Analytica a “stern letter” back in 2015 asking that the data be deleted. Facebook believed that the company did just that. But it didn’t.

By now, Zuckerberg has surely gained a better understanding of the old phrase: “Trust, but verify.” Zuckerberg promised methods to allow users to figure out whether their data has been compromised. Every user should take advantage of it and explore other credible advice on how to secure their personal information.

Facebook has come under fire for Russian trolls influencing the last presidential election and for revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s surreptitious tactics. After all that has occurred, the social media giant, started in a college dorm room back in 2004, should fully realize the power it has to influence politics and the public conversation. It must not simply pledge to do better but actually accomplish that goal. Indeed, it should have done that years ago.

Otherwise, the uproar will extend into future political campaigns, an unacceptable prospect going into the midterm elections and on to 2020.

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