How an Israeli start-up could’ve halted mass abuse of Facebook data

One Israeli cyber-privacy start-up, MyPermissions, says the Cambridge Analytica scandal could’ve been avoided.

Facebook 3D logo
On Monday, Facebook began notifying users if they were among the 87 million victims of a data-harvesting scheme carried out by the Trump-affiliated political firm Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook says data leak hits 87 million users, April 5, 2018 (Reuters)
In 2014, a quarter-of-a-million people downloaded a personality quiz via Facebook, and from those downloads, researcher Aleksandr Kogan accessed personal information on all their “friends.” He then gave the data to the political firm – to be used in targeting voters.
If you were Facebook friends with someone who took the quiz, titled “This is Your Digital Life,” Facebook this week likely sent you a notification at the top of your news feed about the data that Cambridge Analytica may have on you – from messages in your inbox to pages you liked.
One Israeli cyber-privacy start-up, MyPermissions, says the Cambridge Analytica scandal could’ve been avoided – had Facebook users relied on a privacy application such as its own.
“If people would have used MyPermissions, they could have been prevented from being included in the Cambridge Analytica data set,” said Omer Yarkowich, MyPermissions’ VP of product and marketing, adding that many more data scandals exist but have yet to be uncovered.
“Why? Because it’s so, so lucrative,” the Israeli entrepreneur said, adding that it was a multi-billion-dollar market. “Data is possibly the most valuable commodity in today’s world – more than oil, for example... You can [use the data to] focus the attention of so many people on a certain message. More than that, you can tailor the message you want to convey based on each and every kind of person. With that power, with that kind of tool, you can make a lot of money.”
Last month, Israel’s Privacy Protection Authority, housed in the Justice Ministry, announced an investigation into Facebook’s activities and its transfer of personal data to Cambridge Analytica. The political firm is also alleged to have used ex-Israeli spies in hacking the emails of heads of state in Nigeria and the Caribbean island country of Saint Kitts and Nevis.
MyPermissions’ app works by running a scan on a user’s smartphone, looking at his social media accounts – such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Yahoo and Dropbox. It shows which third-party apps have access to the data, and the user then has the option of ceasing access for those apps. With one click, the user can get rid of any and all privacy-infringing apps.
Founded six years ago and based in Tel Aviv, MyPermissions says it’s about helping users reclaim their privacy. (The company will soon be rebranded as MyPrivacy.)
The cyber-privacy start-up comes on the coattails of Israel’s giant cybersecurity industry, which last year raked in 16% of all private investment worldwide.
Fifty-seven Israeli cyber-privacy companies focus on providing services such as digital footprint management, VPNs, permissions control and secure management – according to a Haaretz report in January.
MyPermissions, which is available as “MyPermissions Privacy Cleaner” in Google Play and the App Store, says its mission is to educate users about their data online.
“For years, whenever someone, for example, used our app to scan Facebook – there was a significant Aha! moment – people see dozens and dozens of apps and games and quizzes; either they used them a long, long time ago or they forgot that they used them in the past, or they did not know that those apps had significant access to their data.”
To protect their data without using an app similar to MyPermissions, people must manually log into each and every social media and online account, search for the privacy option, understand how the settings work, and unclick each app permission.
The Israeli privacy app also allows a user to see all the information in a single location, along with color-coding the risk level.
The company makes money by selling premium subscriptions.
It pushed back against concerns that its services could be hacked – with all your social media account information located in one place. MyPermissions says that its scan only occurs on the person’s standalone smartphone device.
“We do not collect information on our users, we don’t store it or sell user information whatsoever,” Yarkowich said. “We don’t have any centralized location that is susceptible to hacking. We don’t collect any information whatsoever. And once you delete the application from the smartphone, everything is deleted with it.”
Previously, MyPermissions was available as a desktop browser platform, and more than 3.5 million people used its services over the years.
The Israeli start-up has raised some $4 million to date and employs eight people. Some of its employees have mentored start-ups from the Military Intelligence Unit 8200 Entrepreneurship and Innovation Support Program, a start-up accelerator run by the 8200 Alumni Association.