Facebook has suspended the data analytics firm that the Trump campaign relied on during the 2016 election, saying the firm improperly received user data and then may have failed to get rid of it.
On Friday, the social media giant announced that Cambridge Analytica; parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories; Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge Analytica; and U.K.-based professor Aleksandr Kogan were all barred from Facebook pending an investigation.
Kogan of the University of Cambridge came up with an app billed on Facebook as a personality predictor "used by psychologists." About 270,000 people downloaded "thisisyourdigitallife," according to Facebook, and in doing so gave away their data; some — depending on security settings — even gave away information about their Facebook friends.
Although users may not have realized it, the mining of their personal information was aboveboard; just by downloading the app they had — knowingly or not — consented to giving it away.
But they did not consent to Kogan giving it away, Facebook says. And when Kogan passed on their data to Cambridge Analytica, he violated platform policies against sharing information with a third party.
Facebook says it learned about what happened in 2015 and removed the app, then demanded Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and SCL destroy the data. Facebook says it was assured by each entity the data was gone.
Now Facebook says it recently learned those assurances may have been false.
"Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted," Facebook Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said in a statement Friday. "We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims."
Cambridge Analytica denies wrongdoing.
In its own statement, it concedes it contracted with and received data from Global Science Research, a company led by Kogan, but says that when it learned that the user information was not obtained in line with Facebook's terms of service, it deleted all of it.
Cambridge Analytica says it is committed to receiving information in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act "and to seek the informed consent of each respondent."
To what extent the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica were intertwined remains murky.
Billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer, who donated to the Trump campaign, backs Cambridge Analytica, having invested millions of dollars in the company. And Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon sat on its board, even naming the company, according The New York Times.
According to the newspaper, "the firm was effectively a shell" based in the U.K. and run by foreigners whose contracts with American campaigns — including that of presidential hopeful Ted Cruz — possibly violated Federal Election Commission rules. (The Times interviewed Wylie, who has since left the company and runs another firm.)
The Trump campaign says it briefly used Cambridge Analytica for TV ads and paid some of its data employees, according to The Associated Press.
But congressional investigators have questioned CEO Alexander Nix about the company's role in the campaign.
Nix said last fall that the firm reached out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the runup to the election to request emails connected to the Hillary Clinton campaign. WikiLeaks said no. It was around the same time that Cambridge began working for the Trump campaign, reports The Wall Street Journal.
The Journal also reports that the firm has become ensnared in Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And yet as the firm sought to build "psychographic profiles" to help discern whom Internet users are and how political messaging might be tailored to them, it turned to Kogan, the Cambridge University psychology professor. The Times says Kogan created the app using a technique developed at the school's Psychometrics Centre, which is designed to map personality traits based Facebook likes. Kogan then put the app on Facebook under the false pretense of using it for academic purposes.
All told, the Times says Kogan handed over more than 50 million profiles to Cambridge Analytica, including information from app users' friends — who had never consented to forgoing their data. Around 30 million of those profiles contained enough information to build psychographic profiles, the newspaper says.
The firm said in its statement, "No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign."
Facebook says it will take legal action if it finds something unlawful occurred.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. Facebook says it is conducting a comprehensive internal and external review now. This is after it suspended Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm used by the Trump campaign in the runup to the 2016 election. Facebook says the firm improperly obtained data from its users. But as NPR's Amy Held reports, questions are mounting about Facebook's role in the data collection and just how vulnerable Facebook users are.
AMY HELD, BYLINE: It began with what seemed like a benign app on Facebook, a personality predictor developed by U.K.-based psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan. But those who downloaded it gave away their personal information. Facebook says that was fine - too bad if users didn't read the fine print. But then Kogan passed along the data to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook says it learned Kogan lied to them in 2015, but was assured by all parties the data was deleted. Now the social media giant acknowledges it may not be all gone. Facebook says 270,000 people downloaded the app. But Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica's one-time director of research, says when you count the friends of the app's users, the data grab was bigger, much bigger. He spoke to the U.K.'s Channel 4 News.
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CHRISTOPHER WYLIE: We were able to get upwards of 50 million-plus Facebook records in the span of a couple months.
HELD: To hear Wiley tell it, Cambridge Analytica used the data for what's called psychographic modeling and messaging - who are you, what are your fears and how can all that information be used to steer you?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WYLIE: It allowed us to move into the hearts and minds of American voters in a way that had never been done before.
HELD: While he has left Cambridge Analytica and he too was suspended from Facebook, for its part, Cambridge Analytica said it deleted all of the data from the U.K. professor and denies using or holding any data from Facebook profiles. Nuala O'Connor, CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group, says even though corporations like Facebook need to do more to protect privacy, users should be mindful, too.
NUALA O'CONNOR: There is no certainty once you give out your information online that it won't be passed to a company or an individual that you really had no expectation would know about you, and that decisions are going to be made about you and what you see online that could really limit your worldview.
HELD: Cambridge Analytica says none of the data collected from the professor's company was used in its work for the Trump campaign. But on both sides of the Atlantic, governments are seeking answers from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who is looking into Russian interference in the election, told ABC's "This Week" he wants to know more.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")
ADAM SCHIFF: We need to find out what we can about the misappropriation of the privacy, the private information of tens of millions of Americans, that misappropriated information used by this digital arm of the Trump campaign to manipulate American voters.
HELD: The British Parliament says both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have been deceptive and wants the CEOs of each to come testify. Amy Held, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.