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Facebook is accused of knowing Cambridge Analytica mined its user data

At least three states are investigating the Menlo Park, California-based company’s user data-protection practices, as is a federal grand jury in New York.

tech Updated: Mar 23, 2019 13:44 IST
Andrew Harris and Daniel Stoller
Andrew Harris and Daniel Stoller
Bloomberg
facebook,facebook cambridge analytica,cambridge analytica data
The Facebook logo is reflected on a woman's glasses in this photo illustration taken June 3, 2018. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/Illustration(REUTERS)

Facebook Inc. employees knew the Cambridge Analytica political-consulting firm had mined users’ personal data but didn’t tell those users before the news became public, an attorney for the District of Columbia said in court.

D.C. Assistant Deputy Attorney General Jimmy Rock made the claim while arguing against the social network’s bid to dismiss the district’s consumer protection lawsuit against it. The British consultancy used the data to target and influence voters on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine sued Facebook in December, accusing it of allowing Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan to gain access to the personal information of some 70 million Americans, 340,000 of whom live in the capital. The company’s failure to safeguard that information allegedly violated D.C. consumer protection laws. The suit seeks a court order barring Facebook from continuing such practices, as well as unspecified monetary damages.

“Facebook believes that this case is not properly before this court,” defense attorney Joshua Lipshutz told D.C. Superior Court Judge Fern Saddler on Friday afternoon, adding that if she reread the complaint, she would “search in vain” for an allegation of company misconduct that would show the case belonged in her court.

At least three states are investigating the Menlo Park, California-based company’s user data-protection practices, as is a federal grand jury in New York. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook for its role in the Cambridge Analytica saga. On Thursday, the agency announced a broader probe of tech company data collection practices. Also on Thursday, Racine said he was unveiling legislation to bolster legal protections for the personal data of district residents.

While Facebook has acknowledged the firestorm set off by last year’s Cambridge Analytica revelations, it attacked the Racine suit in court papers filed last month as an unwarranted “broadside” that duplicated litigation elsewhere and was lodged without a legitimate connection between the company and the district.

D.C. lawyers struck back, asserting that Facebook’s Washington-based employees played a lead role in responding to the uproar over how the company’s user data migrated to Cambridge Analytica through a user-installed third-party app.

“Nearly half of all D.C. residents are Facebook consumers, and the District’s complaint alleges that Facebook made unlawful misrepresentations and omissions to its vast D.C. consumer base in the course of monetizing their data into millions of dollars in advertising revenue,” according to papers filed by Racine’s office.

The company reaped $10 million in ad revenue from the District of Columbia during the last three months of 2018, Rock said in court Friday.

When the District included in its court filings documents it said support its claim that Facebook has more than enough contact with D.C. to warrant its court’s jurisdiction, the company asked Saddler to keep that information under seal.

The documents indicate that “Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s improper data-gathering practices months before news outlets reported on the issue,” Racine’s lawyers said in a March 18 filing.

Company employees in Washington knew the firm’s activities were a “a problem,” Rock said, calling it “material information that should be disclosed to consumers.”

The incursions started in 2013, about 18 months before Facebook employees began discussing them in a string of email messages Racine’s office submitted with court papers, the company’s lawyer said.

“Facebook was not aware of the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015, as we have testified under oath,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email to Bloomberg News on Friday, referring to the creator of the app that mined Facebook user data and shared it with Cambridge. Facebook “first learned through media reports that Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica, and we took action,” the spokesperson said.

During the hourlong hearing, Lipshutz argued that Facebook had disclosed to its users that their information would be shared with third parties, a practice they would be familiar with, he said. Cambridge obtained the user info from the third-party app installed by some users, This Is Your Digital Life, a possibility “clearly and completely disclosed” by Facebook user policy, Lipshutz said.

Rock countered that the agreements themselves were internally contradictory and inherently misleading.

“Facebook failed to enforce its policies against third parties,” he told Saddler. The company told users that while it required those parties to respect user privacy, it wasn’t responsible for what they did with the information they gleaned. “Facebook cannot have it both ways,” he said.

“Today, we made strong arguments before the D.C. Superior Court for why this lawsuit on behalf of harmed District residents should continue to move forward in our local courts,” Racine said in a statement.

Saddler said she plans to rule by the end of April.

The case is District of Columbia v. Facebook Inc., 2018 CA 008715 B, District of Columbia Superior Court (Washington).

First Published: Mar 23, 2019 13:44 IST