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Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s data abuses earlier than we thought

The company said that Facebook employees were alerted to a prior incident of “data scraping” by Cambridge Analytica prior to December 2015.

Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s data abuses earlier than we thought
[Photo: Anthony Quintano]/Wikimedia Commons

It might not surprise anyone to find out that Facebook apparently knew Cambridge Analytica was potentially misusing data for longer than it claimed—potentially calling into question the truthfulness of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress last year—according to a court document that Facebook is trying to strike from the record and hide from the public, the Guardian reports.

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Essentially, what Facebook has claimed–both under oath and via blog posts–is that the company only learned that Cambridge Analytica got its hands on 87 million users’ data when reporters contacted the company. During his testimony to the U.S. Senate last April, Mark Zuckerberg said, “in 2015, we learned from journalists at The Guardian that [researcher Aleksandr] Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica.”

A new court filing from the attorney general of Washington D.C., however, muddles the timeline. The filing, which was submitted to oppose Facebook’s attempt to seal document, claims that this piece of contested evidence “indicates Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s improper data-gathering practices months before news outlets reported on the issue.”

It also reportedly includes emails from employees claiming that “multiple third-party applications accessed and sold consumer data in violation of Facebook’s policies during the 2016 United States Presidential Election.” Thus, the prosecutor is making the claim that Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica’s data misuse before the revelations came to light in late 2015.

Around that time, Facebook also hired an academic who helped build the Facebook app that Cambridge Analytica used to sop up user data and derive psychometric scores. Facebook hasn’t explained what it knew about his role, but he quietly left the company in September.

A looming question remains: Did Mark Zuckerberg perjure himself when saying he didn’t know about the data collection mess until the publication of the Guardian‘s article?

In response, Facebook hit back at these claims, insisting that the company “did not mislead anyone about this timeline.” The point of contention, the Facebook spokesperson told the Guardian, is that two events are being conflated into one. Zuckerberg told Congress that he learned Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica when the initial article came out. The company, however, “heard speculation that Cambridge Analytica was scraping data, something that is unfortunately common for any internet service.”

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The spokesperson described its as a “separate incident” from what Zuckerberg told lawmakers under oath. I reached out to Facebook for additional comment and will update this post if I hear back.


Related: A Facebook scientist tied to Cambridge Analytica has quietly left Facebook


You can read the full Guardian report here.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson provided me with the following statement, echoing what the company told the Guardian:

We were not aware of the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015, as we have testified under oath.

These were two different incidents: in September 2015 employees heard speculation whether Cambridge Analytica was scraping data, something that is unfortunately common for any internet service. In December 2015, we first learned through media reports that Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica, and we took action. Those were two different things.

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About the author

Cale is a Paris-based reporter. He writes about many things.

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