Report: Trump-linked firm exploited data on 50 million Facebook users
The data analytics firm that used voter-targeting tactics to help President Donald Trump clinch the White House improperly collected information on more than 50 million Facebook users, The New York Times alleged Saturday in a report that raises further questions about both companies’ conduct during and after the 2016 election.
The Times article, and a companion piece published by the Observer in London, landed hours after Facebook announced that it had suspended the firm, Cambridge Analytica, while investigating whether it had improperly kept data on as many as 270,000 users.
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But the newest reports raise the prospect that the breach was far broader than what Facebook copped to Friday night — while tying the privacy violations directly to Cambridge’s work for the Trump campaign and its alleged entanglements with Russia.
The Times quoted an anonymous Cambridge employee as saying that hundreds of gigabytes of unencrypted Facebook data still exist on Cambridge’s servers, contradicting assurances given to congressional investigators. Until Friday, the newspaper added, “Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control.”
Enough is enough, top Senate Intelligence Committee Democrat Mark Warner said in a statement Saturday.
“This is more evidence that the online political advertising market is essentially the Wild West,” said the Virginia senator, who has sponsored legislation to force greater transparency in online political advertising. “Whether it’s allowing Russians to purchase political ads, or extensive micro-targeting based on ill-gotten user data, it’s clear that, left unregulated, this market will continue to be prone to deception and lacking in transparency.”
Another Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has co-sponsored the ad transparency legislation, said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg must testify about the situation.
“This is a major breach that must be investigated. It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves,” the Minnesota senator said in a statement. “They say ‘trust us,’ but Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters.”
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington advocacy group, pointed to the revelations as yet another sign that the U.S. lacks strong data privacy protections and called for individual internet users to have “greater agency and control over their personal data by default.”
“Now is a time of reckoning for all tech and internet companies to truly consider their impact on democracies worldwide,” CDT President and CEO Nuala O’Connor said in a statement. “While the misuse of data is not new, what we now see is how seemingly insignificant information about individuals can be used to decide what information they see and influence viewpoints in profound ways.”
The Times said Cambridge Analytica — which has deep ties to Republican donor Robert Mercer and conservative firebrand Steve Bannon — used the harvested information to build a powerful political tool as political campaigns were increasingly looking to sway voters on popular digital platforms.
The company has denied the claims, which date back to 2014.
In a pair of statements, Cambridge Analytica said it had hired Global Science Research, a company run by U.K. professor Aleksandr Kogan, to conduct a “large scale research project” in the U.S. The company said it was unaware that Kogan’s data violated Facebook’s terms of service and subsequently deleted it at Facebook’s insistence.