Privacy commissioner files notice of application to proclaim the social media network wasn’t diligent about obtaining consent

Canada’s privacy commissioner is escalating a battle with Facebook Inc. by asking a court to declare the social media network broke federal privacy law and by seeking to force the firm to implement new personal-data practices.
The commissioner’s office said Thursday it had filed a notice of application in federal court seeking a declaration Facebook contravened the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act by, among other things, failing to obtain “meaningful consent” from users to provide their personal data to third-party apps. The application also seeks an order requiring Facebook to implement measures to ensure it obtains that consent from all users.
Those requests follow a joint investigation by the federal and British Columbia privacy watchdogs into allegations Facebook allowed political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, among others, to access the Facebook data of unwitting users.
Facebook says there is “no evidence” Canadian user data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, but the privacy commissioner’s office says its probe found “major shortcomings” in the company’s privacy practices. The commissioner’s office had also previously warned it could take the matter to court, and said Facebook had shunned its recommendations.
“The Federal Court has, among other powers, the authority to impose binding orders requiring an organization to correct or change its practices and comply with the law,” said the announcement on Thursday from commissioner Daniel Therrien’s office.
Those corrections would also include ensuring users can tell which third parties may have access to their personal information and that users can easily revoke any third-party access.
However, a spokesperson for Facebook fired back in a statement that the privacy office “is choosing to pursue legal action despite our many attempts to work with them and offer measures that would go above and beyond what other companies do, and despite the fact that there is no evidence that Canadian user data was shared with Cambridge Analytica.”
“We look forward to defending the many proactive and robust improvements we’ve made to our platform to better protect people’s personal information,” the spokesperson added.
The legal steps taken by the commissioner form a local angle of sorts to the so-called Cambridge Analytica scandal. That scandal arose out of media reports the U.K.-based Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct firm that was hired by the campaign of now-President Donald Trump, accessed the data of millions of Facebook users without their permission via a third-party app.
Canada’s privacy commissioner launched an investigation in March 2018, the findings of which were released in April 2019 and disputed by Facebook.
The privacy commissioners said they found a lack of meaningful consent for the disclosure of personal information from users who installed the app. The commissioners also said Facebook had “inadequate safeguards” in place to protect user data.
“For example, the OPC (Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada) determined that Facebook never verified that Apps’ privacy policies provided sufficient information to allow for the meaningful consent of its Users,” the commissioner’s notice of application says, according to a copy the watchdog posted online.
But the commissioner’s office noted Thursday that the court application under the privacy law is considered “de novo,” meaning the watchdog can’t just point to last April’s report, it must present evidence and arguments to establish its case.
The privacy commissioner also wants an order requiring Facebook to outline how it complied with ensuring users give meaningful consent, and another barring the company from further using or disclosing users’ personal information to third parties in any way that would violate the privacy law.
Legal proceedings, the commissioner’s office noted, “may be lengthy.”
Facebook, meanwhile, has made changes since the Cambridge Analytica scandal first erupted, such as restricting some third-party access. The company continues to crank out considerable profits as well, such as net income of US$7.35 billion for the three months ended Dec. 31.
Financial Post
Email: gzochodne@nationalpost.com | Twitter: GeoffZochodne