Facebook suspends Trump-linked firm

Data analytics company failed to destroy information taken inappropriately from users

Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica after learning that the firm failed to delete data that it had taken inappropriately from more than 50 million users of the social network. PHOTO: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO • Facebook said it is suspending the Trump-affiliated data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, after learning that the firm failed to delete data that it had taken inappropriately from more than 50 million users of the social network.

Facebook said late last Friday that it was suspending the accounts of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, as well as the accounts of University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan and Mr Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Washington Post reported.

Cambridge Analytica, a firm specialising in using online data to create voter personality profiles to target them with political messages, ran data operations for Mr Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

The company was funded by Trump supporter and hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and former Trump senior adviser Stephen Bannon once sat on its board.

The firm, which began working for the Trump campaign in June 2016, promised that its so-called "psychographic" profiles could predict the personality and political leanings of every adult in the US.

The analytics firm was asked in December to turn over internal documents to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as part of the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 United States presidential election.

The firm has been accused of helping Russia spread disinformation during the election.

Facebook said Dr Kogan had requested and gained access to information from 270,000 Facebook members after they chose to download his app. The app, "thisisyourdigitallife", offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as "a research app used by psychologists".

The Facebook members gave their consent for Dr Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, the content they had liked, as well as some limited information about friend groups and contacts.

Dr Kogan then broke Facebook's policies and passed the information to Cambridge Analytica and to Mr Wylie.

Facebook learnt about Dr Kogan's activities in 2015. The company removed his app at the time and demanded certifications from Dr Kogan and Cambridge, and Mr Wylie, that the information he had shared had been destroyed.

Cambridge Analytica, Dr Kogan and Mr Wylie all certified to Facebook that they had done so. But Facebook said it received reports several days ago that the data was not deleted.

"We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims," Facebook said.

"If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made. We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information."

Facebook did not mention the Trump campaign in its statement, Reuters reported. Cambridge Analytica did not respond to requests for comment.

The company's methods of data collection have been criticised by other researchers.

"Cambridge Analytica overstates their capabilities because they play in the shadows. They willingly cheat and ignore privacy rules and data ethics in order to win," said social media analyst Jonathan Albright of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

The company was also mentioned by a security expert last week during a public hearing by Singapore's parliamentary Select Committee that is looking into how Singapore can tackle deliberate online falsehoods.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies cited the firm last Thursday when he warned that Singapore's close neighbours may already be seeing disinformation tactics being deployed internally. Those tactics, he said, could well be turned on Singapore if relations were to fray.

Dr Shashi said that the firm now has a presence in polls-bound Malaysia, where it is thought to be hired "by people involved in the coming election".


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 18, 2018, with the headline Facebook suspends Trump-linked firm. Subscribe