Posted on July 11, 2019 by staff

Facebook scandal killed my start-up – but I wasn’t bitter


For a long time the world barely batted an eyelid as the likes of Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of Facebook profiles.

Entrepreneur Mary Haskett, whose then company BeehiveID benefited from the easy access to such rich data, says she was one of the few people who expressed genuine concern.

“I’ve been a privacy advocate for a decade and I felt like I was the crazy person talking to the people who were rolling their eyes,” she told BusinessCloud. “Nobody cared – and it was all right there! Nobody was really paying attention.”

One journalist who drew attention to the scandal of accessing profiles without consent was Note to Self podcast host Manoush Zomorodi.

However once the story began to gain worldwide attention it became headline news for months, forcing Facebook to make drastic changes to maintain public confidence.

It spelled the end for BeehiveID, which identified fake online dating accounts created for fraudulent use.

“We were using all of the same data that Cambridge Analytica was using. Our timing was terrible! On Facebook we had access to the social graph of almost everybody – you could have very easily looked at the connections over time and said ‘this is a real person, this is a bot’.

“The first thing you’re going to do if you’re going to commit fraud online is create a fake account. We had like a thousand people sign up for our very first data version and we had a million Facebook profiles with complete data. And that’s wrong.

“In Facebook’s defence, they figured that out and changed their access, which killed my company – but I wasn’t bitter because it was the right thing to do.

“It sorted itself out, but it took longer than it really should have.”

Haskett and long-time collaborator Dr. Alex Kilpatrick then developed ID technology for the US military capable of identifying people at walking speed using a mixture of facial recognition and iris scanning.

“A couple of years ago they asked us to work on a project which was base access. Lots of people work on US bases overseas and they are like small cities,” she said. “Lines form as people try to get into that base – those are soft targets.

“One of the things I admire about the military is they set a requirement: they say ‘yeah, we know it’s really hard… make it work’. And they can fund that.

“You can see a lot of advances in technology coming out of things like that. At the time we would have said it was ridiculous – they were asking for a teleporter! It was a very audacious goal to set.”

She and Dr. Kilpatrick co-founded privacy-first company Blink Identity, which is based in Austin, Texas, to use the tech to improve the experience at music gigs and sports events. The firm raised a seed round of $1.5 million with participation from Live Nation, parent company of Ticketmaster. It has since begun to run pilot programmes at music venues.

“Our timing was good because the music industry as a whole went from ‘hey, we’re nice people, who would want to hurt us?’ to the Manchester bomb, the Las Vegas shooting… all of these events meant they were collectively taking a harder look at how to do security,” explained Haskett.

“Ticketmaster specifically realised they didn’t know the identity of most people who end up in an arena. They sell all these tickets, but no one buys one – they buy six for all their friends and you only know who that one person is. No one knows who’s actually going to the show.

“They’ve been really helpful partners for us and we’re looking to hopefully integrate into their systems in future [so] people can just walk in and we’ll know who they are.

“[When I go to a gig], I don’t want to stop and be fingerprinted and have to go through 19 different steps – nobody goes to the airport and says ‘getting through security was so much fun’! You want that whole process to be streamlined and easy. Right now, going into the event is the least fun part of something that you’re doing for fun.

“We talked to a music festival and they had calculated how much revenue they lost for every 30 minutes of rain, or if the lines get to be a certain length. If people aren’t inside, they can’t buy merchandise, food and drink – it’s all wasted time and effort.”

Haskett was speaking to BusinessCloud at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium for the City Startup Challenge, which could see Blink Identity incorporated into the club’s matchday experience in future.

“Music was our network so we started there, but there are a lot of analogies with sport,” said Haskett. “Whether it’s music lovers going into a concert or sports fans trying to get into a stadium, there is a large movement of people trying to get into a public space where safety is a concern.”

Haskett says Blink Identity takes steps to protect users’ privacy but expressed overall concerns about how facial recognition tech is used.

“We’re in kind of the same place [as we were with Cambridge Analytica] in terms of how face rec technology is used – and people aren’t really paying attention,” she said. “We’re in danger of it happening all over again.”