Compliance Management, Network Security

Probes launched after Facebook boots professor, Cambridge Analytica for harvesting info on 50M Americans without permission

After Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica—the data analytics firm used by the Trump and Brexit campaigns to target voters—for violating its policies when it collected the personal data from accounts of 50 million Americans without their permission, both the U.K. information commissioner and the Massachusetts attorney general have launched investigations. 

An app developed by Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan called thisisyourdigitallife harvested data for the firm, owned in part by hedge fund operator Robert Mercer and once led by former White House adviser Steve Bannon. About 270,000 Facebook users signed up to take a paid personality test through the app. Their data and that of their friends, counting in the millions, was passed along to Cambridge Analytica.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons,” whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who worked closely with Kogan, told the Observer. “That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

By passing along information from users who had not given permission to a third party and then also not properly deleting that data, Facebook said Kogan and Cambridge Analytica broke its rules.

“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,” Facebook Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said in a post announcing the suspension of Cambridge Analytica, its parent Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), Kogan and Wylie. “By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies.”

When Facebook first learned of the violation back in 2015, it removed Kogan's app “and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed,” Grewal wrote. “Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.”

But apparently that was not the case. Recently Facebook “received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted,” Grewal said, noting that the company is “aggressively” trying to determine the accuracy of those reports. “If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made.”

Evgeny Chereshnev, CEO at Biolink.Tech, said "It doesn't matter what this data leakage would have proven or not proven. The point is that there was always the opportunity, and possibility, that certain data would be extracted from Facebook by hackers or third-party providers that we, the users, were not aware of.”

While “it has been said that it's data taken from Facebook without the users' consent,” Chereshnev called the claim “both true and not true.”

By reading “the license agreement, when you sign up to Facebook, you would understand that you have absolutely no rights when it comes to your data; your information, what you post and how information is gathered about you. Facebook can analyse and use this data any way it wants.”

Lawmakers like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., took Facebook to task and called for greater transparency. Famed whistleblower Edward Snowden, currently in exile in Russia, tweeted, “Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as ‘surveillance companies.' He called “their rebranding as ‘social media'” entities “the most successful deception since the Department of War.”

Cambridge Analytica has been widely credited with helping the Trump campaign pull off an election victory over rival Hillary Clinton. And indeed, the president's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner praised the operation last year in an interview with Forbes.

“We found that Facebook and digital targeting were the most effective ways to reach the audiences. After the primary, we started ramping up because we knew that doing a national campaign is different than doing a primary campaign. That was when we formalized the system because we had to ramp up for digital fundraising,” Kushner said. “We brought in Cambridge Analytica. I called some of my friends from Silicon Valley who were some of the best digital marketers in the world. And I asked them how to scale this stuff. Doing it state by state is not that hard. But scaling is a very, very hard thing. They gave me a lot of their subcontractors and I built in Austin a data hub that would complement the RNC's data hub. We had about 100 people in that office, which nobody knew about, until towards the end. We used that as the nerve center that drove a lot of the deployment of our ground game resources.”

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., pointed to Kushner's role and called the story “disturbing” in a Saturday tweet.

“Amazing and disturbing story,” tweeted Lieu, who regularly questions why the president's son-in-law is still working in the White House without top secret security clearance. “Also, guess who hired and used Cambridge Analytica on the @realDonaldTrump campaign? JARED KUSHNER.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey tweeted that her office is looking into the companies' actions.

“Massachusetts residents deserve answers immediately from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” she said. “We are launching an investigation." 

U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she's probing Cambridge Analytica's relationship with the Brexit campaign.

“We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used,” said Denham was quoted as saying. “It's part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the U.K. are using and analyzing people's personal information to micro-target voters.”

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly obtained documents from Cambridge Analytica as part of his ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. 

The company also approached Julian Assange in 2016 offering to help WikiLeaks release emails deleted from Hillary Clinton's email server.

Assange verified the contact by Alexander Nix to the Daily Beast, noting he rebuffed the offer. “We can confirm an approach by Cambridge Analytica and can confirm that it was rejected by WikiLeaks,” Assange said in October.

While the hack of the missing 30,000 emails has never been confirmed, they were hotly debated during the 2016 presidential campaign with then-candidate Donald Trump famously saying, “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you'll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

The data analytics company is handed over relevant documents to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for its now shuttered probe into potential collusion between Russia and members of the Trump team.

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