BLOG

In a move that ratchets up the pressure on UK-based data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has suspended Cambridge from its platform after receiving reports that Cambridge stole user data taken from a third-party app. 

In a blog post, Vice President and General Counsel Paul Grewal explained that a researcher working for Cambridge lied to Facebook and improperly captured data from an app that was using Facebook login.

Cambridge

Alexander Nix

The accusation provides a rare glimpse into how, exactly Cambridge Analytica, which is partly owned by Trump backer Robert Mercer, came into possession of the reams of user data that its founder boasted helped it guide the Trump campaign to victory in 2016.

Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe. He also passed that data to Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc.

Like all app developers, Kogan requested and gained access to information from people after they chose to download his app. His app, “thisisyourdigitallife,” offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists.” Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app. In so doing, they gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.

Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules. By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.

Meanwhile, a New York Times story published Saturday claims the firm siphoned off information from the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission.

Despite Cambridge assuring Facebook the data were deleted - Facebook eventually received reports that the data was never disposed of.

Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made. We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information.

We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information. We will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens. We will take legal action if necessary to hold them responsible and accountable for any unlawful behavior.

Cambridge Analytica founder Alexander Nix once boasted that his firm had collected as many as 5,000 data points on the 270 million likely American voters - a staggering number, according to Mother Jones. 

Looking back, that admission may have been ill-advised: Cambridge Analytica is now embroiled in a lawsuit over whether they need to turn over the data they've collected on individual voters should those voters request it. This threatens to pull back the curtain on methods that the company used to help Trump win - including the rumored use of a technique called psychographics. Psychographics is a groundbreaking data-analysis technique that sounds like something adapted from a bad science-fiction novel.

Here's Mother Jones:

Cambridge Analytica opened its doors in 2013 and claims to use big data to predict human behavior and influence political elections, according to the company’s website. But what sets Cambridge Analytica apart from other data firms is that it claims to use what’s known as psychographics to build its voter profiles. Many political campaigns have used demographics (e.g., age, race, gender) to target political messaging, and President Obama successfully and famously used consumer data to target voters. But psychographics, in theory, go deeper, claiming to be able to predict a voter’s personality traits, such as how organized, extroverted, or quick to worry they are, by looking at a person’s online and consumer behavior.

Representatives of the company have since tried to walk this back:

To add, even Cambridge Analytica itself is sending mixed messages about the use of psychographics on the Trump campaign. Nix said in that same fall 2016 presentation, “Of the two candidates left in the election, one of them is using these technologies,” referring to Trump. Then, at a December post-election panel hosted by Google, Matt Oczkowski, Cambridge’s head of product, said “I don’t want to break your heart; but we actually didn’t really do any psychographics with the Trump campaign.”

Cambridge Analytica said it's in touch with Facebook in order to resolve the matter as quickly as possible​, according to a company statement on Saturday.

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

The suspension comes as CA is embroiled in a lawsuit, brought by David Carroll, a media professor at Parsons School of Design, over whether it must turn over the data it has collected on American voters when they request it. While there are no US laws requiring this, CA, being a UK company, is subject to UK laws, that mandate disclosure.

Still, critics of CA have sought to portray the firm as a purveyor of psychological warfare that has actively tried to interfere in international elections. The company has been forced to repeatedly deny allegations that it conspired with Russia to sway the US election in favor of Trump - allegations that surfaced after it was revealed that Nix, the founder of CA, had offered Julian Assange help in releasing Hillary Clinton's stolen emails.