The US Federal Trade Commission is reportedly investigating Facebook over exposing 50 million users’ personal data to an analytics firm that helped Donald Trump win the presidential election.
The US regulator is probing whether the incident broke a 2011 settlement Facebook reached with the FTC over earlier privacy violations at the social media service, according to a Tuesday report from The Wall Street Journal.
Under that settlement, Facebook had pledged to better protect its users’ personal information. But the company is now facing flak for losing sensitive data on 50 million users to a London-based political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica, which harvested the information to try and influence US voters.
Cambridge Analytica originally obtained the sensitive data in 2014 with the help of a psychology professor, who developed a Facebook app that not only surveyed 270,000 users over the platform, but also scraped the data on their Facebook friends. The 50 million raw profiles were then transferred to Cambridge Analytica, an act that violated Facebook’s policies.
Why Facebook didn’t reveal the incident earlier isn’t clear. The company said it learned of the data abuse back in 2015, believing the leaked user information had been deleted. However, Facebook is now investigating reports that Cambridge Analytica actually retained copies of the sensitive data.
So far, the FTC hasn’t publicly confirmed the probe into Facebook. But the US regulator has the power to fine the social media giant over $40,000 a day per violation.
In response to the news, Facebook said it has remained “strongly committed” to protecting people’s personal information. “We appreciate the opportunity to answer questions the FTC may have,” said Rob Sherman, the company’s deputy chief privacy officer, in an email.
The FTC joins a growing number of government officials who are demanding answers over the Cambridge Analytica incident. Several US lawmakers and attorney generals have sent letters to Facebook for more details on the data abuse as critics question whether the company can sufficiently police itself.
Amid the controversy, Cambridge Analytica decided on Tuesday to suspend its CEO Alexander Nix, pending a full investigation into his conduct. The day before, a UK news channel aired footage of Nix chatting with an undercover reporter about how his company used dirty tactics such as bribes, ex-spies, sex workers and fake IDs to help its clients win elections or gain political influence.
In his defense, Nix issued a statement, claiming he was merely “playing along” with the undercover reporter’s questions.
“I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honeytraps’, and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose,” he said. “I deeply regret my role in the meeting and I have already apologized to staff.”