As part of its ongoing mission to close the barn doors after the cows have got out, Facebook has suspended the accounts of British data analytics firm Crimson Hexagon over concerns that it may be improperly handling user data.
The ominously named company has for years used official APIs to siphon public posts from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other sources online, collating and analyzing for various purposes, such as to gauge public opinion on a political candidate or issue. It has clients around the world, serving Russia and Turkey as well as the U.S. and United Kingdom.
Facebook, it seems, was not fully aware of the extent of Crimson Hexagon’s use of user data, however, including in several government contracts which it didn’t have the opportunity to evaluate before they took effect. The possibility that the company is not complying with its data use rules, specifically that they may have been helping build surveillance tools, was apparently real enough for Facebook to take action. Perhaps the bar for suspension has been lowered somewhat over the last year, and with good reason.
“We are investigating the claims about Crimson Hexagon to see if they violated any of our policies,” said Facebook VP Product Partnerships Ime Archibong in a statement.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the suspension, noted that Crimson Hexagon currently has a contract with FEMA to monitor online discussion for various disaster-related purposes, but a deal with ICE fell through because Twitter resisted this application of their “firehose” data.
However, beyond the suggestion that the company has undertaken work that skirts the edge of what the social media companies consider appropriate use of public data, Crimson Hexagon doesn’t seem to have done anything as egregious as the wholesale network collection done by others. It restricts itself to publicly available data that it pays to access, and applies its own methods to produce its own brand of insight and intelligence.
The company also isn’t (at least, not obviously) a quasi-independent arm of a big, shady network of companies working actively to obscure their connections and deals, as Cambridge Analytica was. Crimson Hexagon is more above the board, with ordinary venture investment and partnerships. Its work is in a way similar to CA, in that it is gleaning insights of a perhaps troublingly specific nature from billions of public posts, but it’s at least doing it in full view.
As before, the onus of responsibility is equally on Facebook to enforce as it is on partners to engage in scrupulous handling of user data. It’s hardly good data custodianship for Facebook to let companies take what they need under a handshake agreement that they’ll do no evil, and then take them to task years later when the damage has already been done. But that seems to be the company’s main priority now: To reiterate the folksy metaphor from above, it is frantically counting the cows that have bolted while apologizing for having left the door open for the last decade or so.
Incidentally, Crimson Hexagon was co-founded by the same person who was put in charge of Facebook’s new social science initiative: Harvard’s Gary King. In a statement, he denied any involvement in the former’s everyday work, although he is chairman. No doubt this connection will receive a bit of scrutiny on Facebook’s side as well.