US & World

Facebook suspends data firm used in Trump campaign

Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis firm that worked for President Trump's 2016 campaign, over allegations that it held onto improperly obtained user data after telling Facebook it had deleted the information.
Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis firm that worked for President Trump's 2016 campaign, over allegations that it held onto improperly obtained user data after telling Facebook it had deleted the information.
Matt Rourke/AP

Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm the Trump campaign relied on during the 2016 election, for allegedly improperly receiving user data and then possibly failing to get rid of it. On Friday, the social media giant announced that Cambridge Analytica, its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), Christopher Wylie and Aleksandr Kogan, a U.K.-based professor who helped found the company, were all barred from Facebook pending an investigation.

Kogan, a professor at the University of Cambridge, came up with an app billed on Facebook as a personality predictor "used by psychologists." 270,000 people downloaded "thisisyourdigitallife," according to Facebook. In doing so, they gave away their data. Some users — depending on security settings — even gave away information about their Facebook friends.

Although users may not have realized it, the mining of their personal information was above board; just by downloading the app they had — knowingly or not — consented to giving it away.

But they did not consent to Kogan giving it away, Facebook says. When Kogan passed on their data to Cambridge Analytica, he violated platform policies against sharing information with a third party.

Facebook says it learned about what happened in 2015 and removed the app, then demanded Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and SCL destroy the data. Facebook says it was assured by each entity the data was gone.

Now Facebook says it recently learned those assurances may have been false.

"Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted," Facebook's Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said in a statement Friday. "We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims."

For its part, Cambridge Analytica denies wrongdoing.

In its own statement, it concedes it contracted with and received data from Global Science Research (GSR), a company led by Kogan, but says when it learned that the user information was not obtained in line with Facebook's terms of service, it deleted all of it.

Cambridge Analytica says it is committed to receiving information in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act "and to seek the informed consent of each respondent."

To what extent the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica were intertwined remains murky.

Billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer, who donated to the Trump campaign, backs Cambridge Analytica, having invested millions of dollars in the company. Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, sat on its board, even naming the company, according The New York Times.

According to the NY Times, "the firm was effectively a shell" based in the U.K. and run by foreigners whose contracts with American campaigns — including that of presidential hopeful Ted Cruz — possibly violated Federal Election Commission rules. (The Times interviewed Wylie, who has since left the company and runs another firm.)

The Trump campaign says it briefly used Cambridge Analytica for T.V. ads and paid some of its data employees, according to The Associated Press.

But Congressional investigators have questioned CEO Alexander Nix about the company's role in the campaign.

Nix said last fall that the firm reached out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the run up to the election to request emails connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Wikileaks said no. It was around the same time Cambridge began working for the Trump campaign, reports The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal also reports that the firm has become ensnared in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The company says it uses data analytics and behavioral psychology to boost the clients' campaigns. Nix has denied to the U.K. parliament that the company gets its data from Facebook.

Yet as the firm sought to build "psychographic profiles," to help discern who internet users are and how political messaging might be tailored to them, it turned to Kogan, the Cambridge University psychology professor. The Times says Kogan created the app using a technique developed at the school's Psychometrics Centre designed to map personality traits based Facebook likes. Kogan then put the app on Facebook under the false pretense of using it for academic purposes.

All told, the Times says Kogan handed over more than 50 million profiles to Cambridge Analytica, including information from app users' friends — who had never consented to forgoing their data. Around 30 million of those profiles contained enough information to build psychographic profiles, the newspaper says.

The firm said in its statement, "No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign."

Facebook says it will take legal action if it finds something unlawful occurred.

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