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Facebook suspends firm founded by researcher behind its election study

Facebook suspends firm founded by researcher behind its election study
[Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images]

Facebook has suspended Boston-based data startup Crimson Hexagon over concerns about how the firm used Facebook data, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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The company, which provides analysis of social media data to a range of corporations and government agencies, was co-founded in 2007 by a Harvard professor who now leads Facebook’s independent research initiative focused on preventing election interference.

Boasting what it says is one of the world’s largest sets of unstructured social media data, Crimson Hexagon has worked for the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and “a Russian nonprofit with ties to the Kremlin.” In one case, the Journal reported, the company inadvertently accessed private Instagram data.

“We are investigating the claims about Crimson Hexagon to see if they violated any of our policies,” Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of product partnerships, said in a statement. According to its investigation so far, Facebook said the firm didn’t inappropriately obtain any Facebook or Instagram user data.

While Facebook said it has no information about its developers’ contracts with clients, using Facebook data for surveillance is a violation of the company’s policies.

Crimson Hexagon says that it uses technologies including artificial intelligence to help brands and other clients derive insights from online conversation, helping to shape marketing campaigns or to develop new products and markets. It has raised more than $33 million.

A spokesperson for Crimson Hexagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. “We do not collect private data from social media providers or anyone else,” Crimson Hexagon’s chief technology officer, Chris Bingham, told the Journal.

The suspension comes at a difficult time for Facebook, and raises new questions about its effort to reform its data and privacy practices in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Harvard professor Gary King, the co-founder and board chairman of Crimson Hexagon, is also the co-founder and leader of Social Science One, a newly launched Facebook initiative that provides the company’s data to researchers in order to better understand, for instance, the platform’s impact on elections.

King, a distinguished University Professor of quantitative social science, said last week that the project’s researchers will have access to a “privacy-protected” petabyte of Facebook data.

“The data collected by private companies has vast potential to help social scientists understand and solve society’s greatest challenges. But until now that data has typically been unavailable for academic research,” said King in a blog post announcing the initiative last week. “Social Science One has established an ethical structure for marshaling privacy preserving industry data for the greater social good while ensuring full academic publishing freedom.”

In a statement emailed to Fast Company, King said that even though he is co-founder and board chairman, he has never had day-to-day involvement in Crimson Hexagon. “I am proud to stand with dozens of the most distinguished academics across the world involved in Social Science One striving to discover the effects of social media on elections and democracy, one of the most critical issues of our time,” he said.

In late 2016, Facebook said it had “taken enforcement action” against Geofeedia, a social media-scanning service used by government and law enforcement, after the ACLU reported on the ways it was being marketed to target protesters and activists. Last March, days before explosive reporting on Cambridge Analytica’s data harvest, the social network said it had added language to its Platform Policy that specifically prohibited developers from using Facebook data “to provide tools that are used for surveillance.”


Updated at 4:25 p.m. with statement from King.

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