The Massachusetts attorney general said on Saturday her office was launching an investigation after reports that Cambridge Analytica had harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook users in developing techniques to support U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
“Massachusetts residents deserve answers immediately from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. We are launching an investigation,” Maura Healey said on Twitter in a post that linked to a New York Times report on the issue.
The Times and London’s Observer, which cited former Cambridge Analytica employees, associates and documents, said the data breach was one of the largest in the history of Facebook Inc.
‘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.’ – Christopher Wylie, whistleblower
Facebook on Friday said it was suspending Cambridge Analytica after finding data privacy policies had been violated.
The Observer said Cambridge Analytica used the data, taken without authorization in early 2014, to build a software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.
The paper quoted Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Canadian data analytics expert Christopher Wylie, who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to obtain the data, as saying the system could profile individual voters to target them with personalized political advertisements.
The more than 50 million profiles represented around a third of active North American Facebook users, and nearly a quarter of potential U.S. voters, at the time, the paper said.
“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. That was the basis that the entire company was built on,” the Observer quoted Wylie as saying.
Cambridge Analytica still holds private data: NYTimes
The New York Times said interviews with a half-dozen former Cambridge Analytica employees and contractors, and a review of the firm’s emails and documents, revealed it not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of it.
The Observer said the data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through Kogan’s company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use, the Observer said.
However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong, the paper said.
It said Facebook’s platform policy allowed only collection of friends data to improve user experience in the app and barred it from being sold on or used for advertising.
Facebook said on Friday it had suspended Cambridge Analytica and its parent group Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) after receiving reports they did not delete information about Facebook users that had been inappropriately shared.
A spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica said GSR “was contractually committed by us to only obtain data in accordance with the U.K. Data Protection Act and to seek the informed consent of each respondent.”
Online political advertising ‘Wild West’
“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,” he said.
“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,” the spokesperson said.
He added that “no data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Facebook did not mention the Trump campaign or any other campaigns in its statement, which was attributed to the social network’s deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal.
“We will take legal action if necessary to hold them responsible and accountable for any unlawful behaviour,” Facebook said, adding that it was continuing to investigate the claims. In a Twitter post, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos called the news reports “important and powerful,” but said it was “incorrect to call this a ‘breach’ under any reasonable definition of the term.”
“We can condemn this behavior while being accurate in our description of it,” he said.
On its website, Cambridge Analytica says it “provided the Donald J. Trump for President campaign with the expertise and insights that helped win the White House.”
Trump campaign manager declines comment
Brad Parscale, who ran Trump’s digital ad operation in 2016 and is his 2020 re-election campaign manager, declined to comment on Friday. In past interviews with Reuters, Parscale has said Cambridge Analytica played a minor role as a contractor in the 2016 campaign, and that the campaign used voter data from a Republican-affiliated organization rather than Cambridge Analytica.
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said the case was “more evidence that the online political advertising market is essentially the Wild West” and showed the need for Congress to pass legislation to bring transparency and accountability to online political advertisements.
The suspension means Cambridge Analytica and SCL cannot buy ads on the world’s largest social media network or administer pages belonging to clients, Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice president, said in a Twitter post.