Facebook suspends Cambridge Analytica, firm that exploited its data to support Trump election effort

In 2010 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously quipped that privacy, as a social norm, was dead. He was probably right but not in the way he intended.

It’s not that people don’t care about privacy; they do, as much or more than ever. It’s just that they appear to have declining control over their data and how it’s used — or exploited. Privacy abuses and massive data breaches are probably the new normal, as the Yahoo, Equifax and now Cambridge Analytica episodes reflect.

Last night Facebook’s deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said in a blog post that Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based data and analytics firm centrally involved in the pro-Brexit and Trump campaigns, had been suspended for violating its policies. According to the post, University of Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan passed data obtained from a “personality prediction” app (thisisyourdigitallife) to Cambridge Analytica and others for political targeting purposes during the 2016 election campaign.

Former Cambridge Analytica co-founder and whistleblower Christopher Wylie said that the firm was seeking to fuel a “culture war” in the US, and “didn’t care” about rules. Transfer of the data from an app to Cambridge Analytica appears to be a clear violation of FTC rules against “consumer deception.” There are also questions about whether Cambridge Analytica’s use of foreign nationals in US election efforts violated federal election laws.

In the UK, Cambridge Analytica is similarly under investigation for privacy violations and other alleged illegal activity in the pro-Brexit campaign. Both the pro-Brexit and Trump campaigns sought to cultivate fear of immigrants and others as political strategies.

Facebook said in its post:

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.

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.

The suspension appears temporary pending the outcome of Facebook’s investigation. Regardless of the outcome, this new episode is another set back for Facebook, which was also widely used by Russian troll farms during the 2016 election to sow division and fear in the US electorate. The company has been trying to move beyond these scandals and put new measures and protections in place to prevent future misuse of its platform and data.

While Mark Zuckerberg may have been correct, in an unintended way, about the decline of privacy as a social norm, it’s a political and policy issue on the rise. Far from going away, it’s about take revenge against digital platforms and marketing tactics in the form of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and ePrivacy Directive.

Postscript: In response to this article, Cambridge Analytica provided the following statement:

Cambridge Analytica fully complies with Facebook’s terms of service and is currently in touch with Facebook following its recent statement that it had suspended the company from its platform, in order to resolve this matter as quickly as possible.

Cambridge Analytica’s Commercial and Political divisions use social media platforms for outward marketing, delivering data-led and creative content to targeted audiences. They do not use or hold data from Facebook profiles.

In 2014, we contracted a company led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally-renowned institution to undertake a large scale research project in the United States.

This company, Global Science Research (GSR), was contractually committed by us to only obtain data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act and to seek the informed consent of each respondent. GSR was also contractually the Data Controller (as per Section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act) for any collected data. GSR obtained Facebook data via an API provided by Facebook.

When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, Cambridge Analytica deleted all data received from GSR.

We worked with Facebook over this period to ensure that they were satisfied that we had not knowingly breached any of Facebook’s terms of service and also provided a signed statement to confirm that all Facebook data and their derivatives had been deleted.

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

Cambridge Analytica only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly. Our robust data protection policies comply with US, international, European Union, and national regulations.

[This article originally appeared on MarTech Today.]

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