Facebook announced today that it had banned the app myPersonality for improper data controls and suspended hundreds more. So far this is only the second app to be banned as a result of the company’s large-scale audit begun in March; but as myPersonality hasn’t been active since 2012, and was to all appearances a legitimate academic operation.
The total number of app suspensions has reached 400 since March. Suspensions aren’t listed publicly, however, and apps may be suspended and reinstated without any user notification. The only other app to be banned via this process is Cambridge Analytica.
myPersonality was created by researchers at the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre (no relation to Cambridge Analytica — this is an actual academic institution) to source data from Facebook users via personality quizzes. It operated from 2007 to 2012, and was quite successful, gathering data on some four million users (directly, not via friends) when it was operational.
The dataset was used for the Centre’s own studies and other academics could request access to it via an online form; applications were vetted by CPC staff and had to be approved by the petitioner’s university’s ethics committee.
It transpired in May that a more or less complete set of the project’s data was available for anyone to download from GitHub, put there by some misguided scholar who had received access and decided to post it where their students could access it more easily.
Facebook suspended the app around then, saying “we believe that it may have violated Facebook’s policies.” That suspension has graduated into a ban, because the creators “fail[ed] to agree to our request to audit and because it’s clear that they shared information with researchers as well as companies with only limited protections in place.”
“Facebook has long been aware of the application’s use of data for research,” Stillwell said in a statement. “In 2009 Facebook certified the app as compliant with their terms by making it one of their first ‘verified applications.’ In 2011 Facebook invited me to a meeting in Silicon Valley (and paid my travel expenses) for a workshop organised by Facebook precisely because it wanted more academics to use its data, and in 2015 Facebook invited Dr Kosinski to present our research at their headquarters.”
During that time, Kosinski and Stillwell both told me, dozens of universities had published in total more than a hundred social science research papers using the data. No one at Facebook or elsewhere seems to have raised any issues with how the data was stored or distributed during all that time.
“It is therefore odd that Facebook should suddenly now profess itself to have been unaware of the myPersonality research and to believe that the data may have been misused,” Stillwell said.
Facebook has mobilized a full-time barn door closing operation years after the horses bolted, as evident by today’s ban. So when you and the other four million people get a notification that Facebook is protecting your privacy by banning an app you used a decade ago, take it with a grain of salt.