Facebook on Friday suspended an analytics firm best known for its work on the Donald Trump campaign for scraping Facebook users’ data without their permission for political targeting, and lying about having destroyed it.
Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) and its political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, as well as Dr. Aleksandr Kogan and Christopher Wylie are banned from Facebook “pending further information,” Paul Grewal, Facebook VP and Deputy General Counsel, said in a Friday blog post.
Kogan developed a personality test app called thisisyourdigitallife, which he billed as “a research app used by psychologists,” according to Facebook. About 270,000 people downloaded the app and gave Kogan access to their data, like city and content they had liked. That information should have remained with Kogan, but he instead gave it SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Wylie. They used it to build profiles on potential voters for use in political campaigns.
The operation was not limited to 270,000 people, though. Kogan’s app also provided access to “more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it,” Grewal wrote— aka friends of friends—which allowed Cambridge to build profiles for millions of potential voters.
Ultimately, the New York Times reports, Kogan provided Cambridge with “50 million raw profiles,” of which “roughly 30 million contained enough information, including places of residence, that the company could match users to other records” and build what Cambridge called “psychographic profiles.”
This data collection started in 2014 and Facebook was made aware of it in 2015. At that point, “we removed his app from Facebook 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.”
They had not. According to the Times, “a former [Cambridge] employee said that he had recently seen hundreds of gigabytes on Cambridge servers, and that the files were not encrypted.”
Grewal said Facebook was told the data had not been deleted “several days ago, [and] we are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims.” The Times said it sent questions to Facebook about the data for a week, but “Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control.”
In a Saturday statement, Cambridge Analytica said it “deleted all data” received from Kogan when it “became clear that the data had not been obtained…in line with Facebook’s terms of service.”
Wylie left Cambridge in late 2014 and has since become a rather outspoken critic of the firm’s tactics.
How did the Trump campaign come into play? As the Times reports, billionaire Robert Mercer invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica, starting with $1.5 million for the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race. That didn’t pan out; Democrat Terry McAuliffe won. But Mercer and other high-profile GOP donors had their eyes on a bigger prize—Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid.
But creating voter profiles is expensive, so Cambridge turned to Kogan and his Facebook app for data collection. Their efforts on the Cruz campaign were reported by The Guardian in late 2015, which is when Facebook found out and demanded that the data be destroyed. It was not, and when Cruz failed to secure the GOP presidential nomination, that data was put to use for the Trump campaign.
As Jared Kushner told Forbes in late 2016, “We found that Facebook and digital targeting were the most effective ways to reach the audiences. The campaign “brought in Cambridge Analytica,” Kushner said, which worked with Brad Parscale, the campaign’s digital lead. Parscale was recently selected to lead President’s Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Cambridge Analytica denies using any of the offending Facebook material for Trump’s campaign. “No data from [Kogan] was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign,” it said Saturday. “Cambridge Analytica only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly. Our robust data protection policies comply with US, international, European Union, and national regulations.”