POLITICS
03/17/2018 12:58 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2018

Facebook Suspends Political Research Firm Linked To Trump For Violating User Privacy

The group reportedly obtained personal information from 50 million users.

Facebook has suspended a political research and campaign firm linked to President Donald Trump and Steve Bannon for violating policies protecting users’ privacy, the company said Friday. 

Strategic Communication Laboratories and the company’s political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, were barred from the social media platform because the operation violated company policies by obtaining personal data from its customers, Facebook said. The data was initially obtained by the developer of an app that promised to provide users with “personality predictions.”

To create those predictions, Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users, according to a joint investigation by The New York Times and The Observer of London published Saturday morning.

Trump’s presidential campaign paid millions of dollars to Cambridge Analytica, which was funded by Trump’s billionaire donor Robert Mercer. Bannon once served on its board. The company is now seeking U.S. government contracts, The Washington Post has reported. 

In a statement issued Saturday, Cambridge denied any wrongdoing.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge, told The Observer that the company “built models to exploit what we knew” about Facebook users to “target their inner demons.”

“They want to fight a culture war in America,” Wylie told the Times, referring to Cambridge’s leadership. 

“Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war,” added Wylie, who stopped working for the company in 2014.

The company also did extensive work to help supporters pass Brexit, prompting The Observer to accuse the operation last year of “hijacking” democracy. It continues to carry out political, governmental and military investigations and campaigns around the world. 

Special counsel Robert Mueller in December called for company documents as part of his investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.

In the latest controversy, Facebook accused the company of continuing to hold information about its users that it promised it had destroyed three years ago. 

Users’ private information — such as the cities they live in, preferred content and some details about friends — were initially accessed when they downloaded the app “thisisyourdigitallife,” which was obtained through Facebook. Thisisyourdigitallife promised predictions about a user based on psychological profiles created through the app.

The app, created by a University of Cambridge psychology professor, said private data accessed to develop the profile would be used by psychologists doing research. Some 270,000 Facebook users downloaded the app, which granted him access to their information, as well as to information from their Facebook friends. 

Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth argued that the incident did not constitute a data “breach” because users voluntarily downloaded the app. Friends of the app users, however, may not have been aware their information was being recorded.

At the time, obtaining users’ private information through the app conformed to guidelines for app developers, according to Facebook. App developer Aleksandr Kogan violated Facebook policy when he turned the data over in 2015 to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Facebook said. Kogan also provided data to Wylie, then of Eunoia Technologies, Inc., according to Facebook.

Facebook shut down the app when the company discovered Kogan’s violation and demanded that Strategic Communication Laboratories destroy obtained information, which company officials said they did, according to the Facebook statement. But Facebook just “days ago discovered” that “not all data was deleted,” according to its statement. SCL, Kogan and Wylie are now all barred from the social media platform.

Cambridge Analytica firmly denied using or holding data from Facebook profiles in its statement. The company acknowledged that it obtained data through a “seemingly reputable” academic contractor who did not comply with Facebook’s terms of service, but asserted its claim that it deleted all of the ill-gotten data and worked with Facebook through the incident.

Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie could not immediately be reached for comment.

Several users responded to Facebook on Twitter, saying user data should have been protected from Kogan from the start. Others criticized Facebook for believing Cambridge’s assurances that it destroyed the information and for waiting three years to take action.

In a statement to Wired, Facebook executive Paul Grewal said the company would take “whatever steps are required” to make sure the data is completely deleted.

Massachusets Attorney General Maura Healey announced Saturday afternoon that her office would launch an investigation into Cambridge’s practices. The office of the United Kingdom’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, began examining use of personal data for political purposes in May 2017.

This article has been updated with additional comments from Facebook and reactions to the company’s news. 

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