Facebook announced late Friday that it had suspended the account of Strategic Communication Laboratories, and its political data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica — which used Facebook data to target voters for President Donald Trump’s campaign in the 2016 election. In a statement released by Paul Grewal, the company’s vice president and deputy general counsel, Facebook explained that the suspension was the result of a violation of its platform policies. The company noted that the very unusual step of a public blog post explaining the decision to act against Cambridge Analytica was due to “the public prominence of this organization.”
Facebook claims that back in 2015 Cambridge Analytica obtained Facebook user information without approval from the social network through work the company did with a University of Cambridge psychology professor named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan. Kogan developed an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” that purported to offer a personality prediction in the form of “a research app used by psychologists.”
Apparently around 270,000 people downloaded the app, which used Facebook Login and granted Kogan access to users’ geographic information, content they had liked, and limited information about users’ friends. While Kogan’s method of obtaining personal information aligned with Facebook’s policies, “he did not subsequently abide by our rules,” Grewal stated in the Facebook post.
“By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, 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. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.”
Facebook said it first identified the violation in 2015 and took action — apparently without informing users of the violation. The company demanded that Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Wylie certify that they had destroyed the information.
Over the past few days, Facebook said it received reports (from sources it would not identify) that not all of the data Cambridge Analytica, Kogan, and Wylie collected had been deleted. While Facebook investigates the matter further, the company said it had taken the step to suspend the Cambridge Analytica account as well as the accounts of Kogan and Wylie.
Depending on who you ask, UK-based Cambridge Analytica either played a pivotal role in the U.S. presidential election or cooked up an effective marketing myth to spin into future business. Last year, a handful of former Trump aides and Republican consultants dismissed the potency of Cambridge Analytica’s so-called secret sauce as “exaggerated” in a profile by the New York Times. A May 2017 profile in the Guardian that painted the Robert Mercer-funded data company as shadowy and all-powerful resulted in legal action on behalf of Cambridge Analytica. Last October, the Daily Beast reported that Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix contacted Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with an offer to help disseminate Hillary Clinton’s controversial missing emails.
In an interview with TechCrunch late last year, Nix said that his company had detailed hundreds of thousands of profiles of Americans throughout 2014 and 2015 (the time when the company was working with Sen. Ted Cruz on his presidential campaign).
…We used psychographics all through the 2014 midterms. We used psychographics all through the Cruz and Carson primaries. But when we got to Trump’s campaign in June 2016, whenever it was, there it was there was five and a half months till the elections. We just didn’t have the time to rollout that survey. I mean, Christ, we had to build all the IT, all the infrastructure. There was nothing. There was 30 people on his campaign. Thirty. Even Walker it had 160 (it’s probably why he went bust). And he was the first to crash out. So as I’ve said to other of your [journalist] colleagues, clearly there’s psychographic data that’s baked-in to legacy models that we built before, because we’re not reinventing the wheel. [We’ve been] using models that are based on models, that are based on models, and we’ve been building these models for nearly four years. And all of those models had psychographics in them. But did we go out and rollout a long form quantitive psychographics survey specifically for Trump supporters? No. We just didn’t have time. We just couldn’t do that.
The key implication here is that data leveraged in the Trump campaign could have originated with Kogan before being shared to Cambridge Analytica in violation of Facebook policy. The other implication is that Cambridge Analytica may not have destroyed that data back in 2015.
The tools that Cambridge Analytica deployed have been at the heart of recent criticism of Facebook’s approach to handling advertising and promoted posts on the social media platform.
Nix credits the fact that advertising was ahead of most political messaging and that traditional political operatives hadn’t figured out that the tools used for creating ad campaigns could be so effective in the political arena.
“There’s no question that the marketing and advertising world is ahead of the political marketing the political communications world,” Nix told TechCrunch last year. “…There are some things which [are] best practice digital advertising, best practice communications which we’re taking from the commercial world and are bringing into politics.”
Responding to the allegations, Cambridge Analytica sent the following statement.
In 2014, SCL Elections contracted Dr. Kogan via his company Global Science Research (GSR) to undertake a large scale research project in the US. GSR was contractually committed to only obtain data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act and to seek the informed consent of each respondent. GSR were also contractually the Data Controller (as per Section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act) for any collected data. The language in the SCL Elections contract with GSR is explicit on these points. GSR subsequently obtained Facebook data via an API provided by Facebook. When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, SCL Elections deleted all data it had received from GSR. For the avoidance of doubt, no data from GSR was used in the work we did in the 2016 US presidential election.
Under Section 55 of the Data Protection Act (Unlawful obtaining etc. of personal data), a criminal offense has not been committed if a person has acted in the reasonable belief that he had in law the right to obtain data. GSR was a company led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally renowned institution who made explicit contractual commitments to us regarding the its legal authority to license data to SCL Elections. It would be entirely incorrect to attempt to claim that SCL Elections
illegally acquired Facebook data. Indeed SCL Elections worked with Facebook over this period to ensure that they were satisfied that SCL Elections 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.
Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections do not use or hold Facebook data.