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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Facebook suspends Trump campaign data firm Cambridge Analytica

Reports suggest the firm stole the data of up to 50 million Facebook users

Data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, which played a key role in Donald Trump's US presidential campaign, is said to have harvested data from millions of Facebook users. Associated Press
Data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, which played a key role in Donald Trump's US presidential campaign, is said to have harvested data from millions of Facebook users. Associated Press

Facebook has suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis firm hired by Donald Trump's 2016 United States presidential campaign, after reports it harvested profile information from millions of US voters without their permission.

According to The New York Times and Britain's Observer newspaper, the company stole information from 50 million Facebook users' profiles in the social network company's biggest-ever data breach. This information was then reportedly used in software design to predict and influence voters' choices at the ballot box.

Facebook has also suspended the accounts of Cambridge Analytica's parent organisation, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), and University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan and Christopher Wylie, who runs the firm Eunoia Technologies.

Cambridge Analytica was bankrolled to US$15 billion (Dh55bn) by US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a major Republican donor. The Observer said it was headed at the time by Steve Bannon, Mr Trump's former chief strategist.

"In 2015, we learned that... Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe," Facebook said in a posting on Friday by its vice president and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal.

Mr Kogan also improperly shared the data with Mr Wylie, it said.

The psychologist's app, thisisyourdigitallife, offered a personality prediction test, describing itself on Facebook as "a research app used by psychologists".

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Up to 270,000 people downloaded the app, allowing Mr Kogan to access information such as the city listed on their profile, or content they had liked.

"However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers' Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong," the Observer reported.

Wylie, who later became a whistleblower, told the newspaper: "We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on."

Mr Kogan legitimately obtained the information but "violated platform policies" by passing information to SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Mr Wylie, Facebook said.

Facebook, which did not say how the data was used or misused, said it removed the app in 2015 when it learned of the violation, and was told by Mr Kogan and everyone who received the data that it had since been destroyed.

"Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted," Mr Grewal wrote.

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

The New York Times reported that copies of the data harvested for Cambridge Analytica were still online and that its team had viewed some of the raw data.

Cambridge Analytica, the US unit of British behavioural marketing firm SCL, rose to prominence as the firm that the pro-Brexit group Leave.EU hired for data-gathering and audience-targeting.