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Scrutiny falls on Facebook following reports of data harvesting for Trump campaign

Image credit: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Following reports that a data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica (CA), harvested the private data of more than 50 million Facebook users to develop tools for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, lawmakers in the US and UK have called for further investigation into the companies involved.

The allegations were published this weekend by The Observer and the New York Times. This unauthorised harvesting of data reportedly affected nearly a quarter of potential US voters.

The data was collected via an app, thisisyourdigitallife. Hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a standard personality test and consented to share their data for academic use. This app went on to harvest data from users’ Facebook contacts; the company’s platform policy does not allow the collection of this data for commercial purposes.

According to reports, CA took the data in early 2014, and used this as the basis for algorithms to predict and influence voting behaviour of Facebook users based on their personal information on the platform; the Trump campaign went on to pay CA more than $6m for its tools and insights.

The New York Times has said that CA still possesses most or all of this personal information.

“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,” said whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who helped set up CA, in an Observer report. “That was the basis that the entire company [CA] was built on.”

Facebook has since suspended Wylie and CA from its platform. CA and its parent company will no longer be able to buy ads on Facebook.

The story has led to condemnation of the nature of these operations, and calling for further investigations. Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, has announced on Twitter that her office will launch an investigation into the incident, while Adam Schiff, the leading Democrat in the US House of Representatives intelligence committee, has called for CA to be “thoroughly investigated” and stated that Facebook must provide answers about how came to provide this private information.

The UK Information Commission announced that it would conduct an investigation of CA: “Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously,” said Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May said that the reports were “very concerning”, and that May believes it is “absolutely right” to investigate the matter.

Conservative MP Damian Collins – who as chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee has been overseeing a parliamentary fake news inquiry – said that it “seems clear that [Alexander Nix, CA CEO] has deliberately mislead the committee and parliament by giving false statements”; Nix gave evidence to the committee in February.

Collins said that the committee would pursue Nix for further questioning and that Christopher Wylie, the CA whistleblower who helped The Observer break the story, had been invited to give evidence. He added that he would write to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding that he or another senior executive at Facebook gives evidence to the committee. Collins said that Facebook was aware of its users’ data being used for commercial purposes without their consent, and of CA’s involvement, but had failed to supply the committee with evidence of the relationship between the two companies.

“It is not acceptable that they have previously sent witnesses who seek to avoid asking difficult questions by claiming not to know the answers,” said Collins. “The reputation of this company is being damaged by stealth, because of their constant failure to respond with clarity and authority to the questions of genuine public interest that are being directed to them. Someone has to take responsibility for this. It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to stop hiding behind his Facebook page.”

A Facebook spokesperson said that the company had cut its ties to the offending app when it became aware of its violation of its platform policy, and it would continue to investigate claims in a “comprehensive internal and external review”.

“We will take legal action if necessary to hold them responsible and accountable for any lawful behaviour,” a spokesperson said. Meanwhile, Alex Stamos, Facebook CSO, has stated on Twitter that it is not correct to define this incident as a “breach”.

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