Facebook loses control of 50 million users’ data, suspends analytics firm
Cambridge Analytica – the data-crunching firm with tools so muscular that founder Christopher Wylie has described it as “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindf**k tool” – has been collecting Facebook user data without permission through “a scam and a fraud,” Facebook said on Friday.
On Friday, after a week of questions from investigative reporters, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica and parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) from its platform. The suspensions came late in the game, news outlets are charging, given that Facebook has known about this for three years. Facebook, for its part, claims that the parties involved lied about having deleted harvested data years ago. At least one of the parties involved has shown evidence that points to Facebook having done very little to make sure the data was deleted.
Not surprisingly, Facebook immediately pushed back against the characterization of a massive data leak in an update to its initial announcement of the suspensions. It said that the data got out not through a leak but because some 270,000 Facebook users willingly signed up for a Facebook personality test called thisisyourdigitallife that billed itself as “a research app used by psychologists.” The Observer reports that the dossier includes emails, invoices, contracts and bank transfers that reveal more than 50 million profiles – most of which belong to registered US voters – that were harvested from Facebook. Facebook has suspended Wylie from its platform while it carries out its investigation.
You might well question how 270,000 people signing up for a Facebook personality quiz blossomed into a potential data breach affecting 50 million users – nearly 25% of potential US voters. As The Observer describes it, the app scraped not just test-takers’ private profile data, but also that of their friends. Facebook didn’t disallow such behavior from apps at the time, but such data harvesting was allowed only to improve user experience in the app, not to be sold or used for advertising. Of the 50 million profiles scraped (only 270,000 of which belonged to users who’d granted permission), roughly 30 million contained enough information, including places of residence, that the company could (at least theoretically) match users to other records and build “psychographic” profiles.