FTC investigating use of millions of Facebook users private data to help elect Trump by instigating ‘culture war’

UPDATE — 3/21, 4:14 p.m. EDT: In a Facebook post Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg addressed the controversy surrounding his company’s breach of user data to a third-party app developer in 2013 which was used by a political consulting company hired by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Besides banning outside software add-ons from accessing data from users without their permission in 2014, Zuckerberg said Facebook will “investigate” apps that may have information on people prior to the platform’s policy change, and develop a method for individuals to manage what personal data apps can use.

 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is investigating the improper acquisition of the private information of 50 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based data analytics firm that helped President Trump win the 2016 presidential election.

First reported by Bloomberg, the FTC aims to ascertain whether Facebook violated a decree the commission put into effect in 2011 in response to complaints that it failed to protect user privacy and to disclose fully the ways in which user data could be used.

Facebook responded on Friday to reports of the investigation in a statement from Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal, who insisted that this was by no means a data breach. However, Facebook acknowledged that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, have both been suspended from the social media site.

Grewal alleges that Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic, violated Facebook’s policies by designing an app called thisisyourdigitallife that mined user data while claiming to be a psychology research tool for academics.

Facebook, while admitting Kogan’s wrongdoing, still maintained that the data itself was gained legitimately, as users consented to the app accessing their information.

The New York Times groundbreaking report published Saturday on the data leak features Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge Analytica and worked there until 2014, as a major whistleblower exposing the firm’s insidious scheme to influence political outcomes around the globe by identifying and capitalizing on voter personalities and behaviors.

Wylie now cedes that by manipulating voter sentiments through social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter, Cambridge Analytica is fighting a “culture war.”

“Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war,” Wylie added.

Cambridge Analytica’s so-called arsenal was funded in part by major Republican donor Robert Mercer, who forwarded a $15 million investment under the guidance of his political counsel, Steve Bannon, also a major player in Trump’s presidential bid and victory.

Wylie joined the project in 2013 as a tech-savvy 24-year-old with considerable ties in the world of political campaigns, claiming an interest in the psychological facets that most consistently determine voters’ selection of candidates for political office.

Wylie’s research led him to Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, where researchers had established a method to chart personality traits based on what Facebook users claimed to like, according to the Times. However, the Centre refused Wylie’s project, which is when he found a willing architect in Aleksandr Kogan, then a psychology professor at Cambridge.

Following an exposé by ITN Channel 4 News in which Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix admitted to a plethora of underhanded techniques including the use front companies and outside contractors to manipulate elections around the world, the data firm announced his suspension Tuesday.

Authorities in the United Kingdom are also probing Cambridge’s secret use of Facebook user data and have called on the social media giant’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to produce internal information about the scandal.

 

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

 

[Bloomberg] [New York Times] [Channel 4 News] [ABC News] [BBC] [Photo courtesy Reuters]