Facebook Again Tries to Clarify When It First Knew About Cambridge Analytica

Social network disputes timeline of events

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Cambridge Analytica shut down and filed for bankruptcy in May 2018.
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Facebook ramped up the semantics in its latest attempt to address its long-simmering Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Vice president and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal said in a Newsroom post Friday that the company has made heavily redacted internal emails from 2015 public at the request of District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine.

Racine filed a lawsuit against Facebook last December over the company’s user data collection and protection practices, specifically mentioning Cambridge Analytica.

Grewal said the document made public Friday “has the potential to confuse two different events surrounding our knowledge of Cambridge Analytica,” insisting that there are two distinct issues: data scraping (accessing or collecting public data via automated means) and the unauthorized sale of user data.

Facebook continues to maintain it learned that data scraping had happened in September 2015, but was unaware that application developer Aleksandr Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015.

According to Grewal, a Facebook employee whose name was redacted from the shared document emailed about “unsubstantiated rumors” from a competitor of Cambridge Analytica about how the company was scraping the social network’s public data, but an investigation by an also-unnamed engineer found no evidence of those rumors.

The initial employee said in an email shared by Facebook, “We suspect many of these companies are doing similar types of scraping, the largest and most aggressive on the conservative side being Cambridge Analytica, a sketchy (to say the least) data modeling company that has penetrated our market deeply. Because the frequency with which this is coming up has increased drastically in the past few weeks, we’d like to work with your team to make sure we have clear channels between our teams.”

Although employee names are redacted throughout the document shared Friday, Digital Content Next CEO Jason Kint pointed out in a tweet that a number of employees were involved in the exchanges, from the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., as well as Washington, D.C., adding, “This was a high-priority issue when news broke in December, which led entirely to a PR cover-up rather than what they’ve testified.”

Kogan was not mentioned in the released emails until December 2015, when one employee said they were trying to arrange a call with Kogan and seeking immediate answers via email. Another responded, “Alex Kogan was my post-doc supervisor at Cambridge, although I left before he founded GSR (Global Science Research). I have a cursory understanding on the basic principles behind GSR’s products and data-collection methods, if it helps.”

However, Joseph Chancellor, Kogan’s co-founder and equal partner in GSR, began working at Facebook on Nov. 9, 2015, according to Kogan’s testimony before the Senate in July. Kogan said at the time that Chancellor had informed Facebook about his work at GSR during the interview process.

Cambridge Analytica first became widely known to the public when The Guardian published a story on Dec. 11, 2015, about then-presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) targeting voters using data harvested by the company.

Yet Cambridge Analytica was not suspended from the platform until March 2018, and the social network remained silent on the issue until it was mentioned by Facebook’s vice president of global marketing solutions Carolyn Everson at Shoptalk in Las Vegas three days after the news broke, and then finally addressed by CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a Facebook post the following day.

In April 2018, Facebook revealed that Cambridge Analytica may have accessed the personal information of 87 million users, up from the 50 million figure that had been reported the previous month.

The following month, Cambridge Analytica disclosed that it was shutting down and filing for bankruptcy in the U.S. Southern District of New York. Its parent company, SCL Elections, filed for insolvency in the U.K. and ceased all operations in both countries.

Facebook agreed to a record $5 billion Federal Trade Communications fine in a privacy settlement reached in July. At the same time, FTC said it had reached an agreement with former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix and Kogan, but that the agency still intended to sue Cambridge Analytica.

Grewal wrote in his Newsroom post, “Cambridge Analytica was a clear lapse for us, which we have worked hard to address. We’ve learned many lessons that will help us become a stronger company going forward.”

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