March 20, 2018

A Data Analysis Firm Collects Personal Data of Over 50 Million Facebook Users Without Permission

A British data analytics firm known for helping political campaigns including Donald Trump’s presidential bid and Brexit Leave campaign has been suspended from using Facebook’s advertising platform.


On late Friday, Facebook announced that it had suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), for violating the company policies and collecting the personal information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their consent.

Cambridge Analytica improperly acquired and retained Facebook users information from a third-party researcher. The psychology professor named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan from ‘University of Cambridge’ provided data to Cambridge Analytica that he had acquired through an app he developed.

This app called “thisisyourdigitallife” was downloaded by 270,000 users and described as “a research tool used by psychologists.”  It paid users to take a personality test and participants had to sign in through their Facebook login and agree to let their data be used for academic purposes. However, the app went beyond its seemingly stated scope, by pulling in data from the friends’ lists of any test-takers.

This revelation was made by a whistleblower named Christopher Wylie, a former research director at CA.

The social media giant was aware of the breach as far back as late 2015 and had even received legally binding guarantees from the firm that all of the data was deleted. However, a few days ago, Facebook learned that the firm lied about it and had allegedly not destroyed the data. Upon discovering that, Facebook has now suspended any business with CA and its holding company, by preventing them from buying ads or managing pages on the social media platform.

According to a blog post, written by Paul Grewal, the company’s vice president, and deputy general counsel, Facebook is willing to take legal action if further investigations reveal the companies – Cambridge Analytica and SCL – engaged in any “unlawful behavior.”

In a statement, CA has said that it had deleted “all Facebook data and their derivatives,” and that it’s working with Facebook to resolve the issue. Further, it claims that it didn’t use any of the data in question for Trump’s campaign. However, The New York Times reports that it “ CA still possesses most of all of the trove.”

However, Facebook refrains itself from calling it a data breach.

“People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “Nevertheless, this was a scam—and a fraud. Mr. Kogan misled us all. He lied about the purpose of his app. He violated our policies, specifically on how the data could be used.”

In the latest development, Facebook has suspended the account of Wylie.

The incident is demonstrative of ways that Facebook’s core business model — delivering individualized ads to users — can be exploited while raising uncomfortable questions about how such data might have been used to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.

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