Court reveals Facebook knew of data mining earlier than reported

Photo by  Markus Spiske  on  Unsplash

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

According to a recent court filing by the Washington DC Attorney General, Facebook already had knowledge of Cambridge Analytica’s “improper data-gathering practices” several months before the Guardian newspaper first reported on them, back in December 2015.

The AG made the allegation while arguing against Facebook’s insistence that a document in the case be kept under seal. The social network argued that the document should be sealed because it contained commercially sensitive information.

According to the Attorney General's redacted filing, the document in question is;

"an email exchange between Facebook employees discussing how Cambridge Analytica (and others) violated Facebook's policies, …It also indicates Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica's improper data gathering months before news outlets reported on the issue."

In response to the filing, Damian Collins, chair of the House of Commons digital culture media and sport select committee (DCMS) tweeted that the new information “could suggest that Facebook has consistently mislead [sic]” British lawmakers “about what it knew and when about Cambridge Analytica”,

A spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement:

“Facebook absolutely did not mislead anyone about this timeline.”

However, the court filing raises important questions concerning when Facebook learned that Cambridge Analytica had been harvesting the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users. The discovery prompted a backlash that sparked questions about whether Facebook can be trusted to protect the personal data of its 2 billion-plus users.

Users’ personal data was extracted from Facebook by GSR, a company formed by the former Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan. The data was then transferred to SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company.

Although highly controversial, the data extraction did not violate Facebook’s policies. At the time, GSR could collect information, not only from users who gave their consent, but also from the users’ friends. But it was when GSR transferred the data to SCL that Facebook’s policies were violated, the company maintains.

Shortly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook “learned from journalists at The Guardian that Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica” in 2015. The article detailing this data sharing was published on 11 December 2015. 

Facebook was sued by Washington DC’s Attorney General because it failed to protect users’ personal information from Cambridge Analytica in late 2018. Facebook has tried to have the case dismissed and also to seal the document that the AG cited as evidence in his opposition to the motion to dismiss the case.

According to a Monday court filing by the AG, the document is:

“an email exchange between Facebook employees discussing how Cambridge Analytica (and others) violated Facebook’s policies”, …[Those emails include] “candid employee assessments that multiple third-party applications accessed and sold consumer data in violation of Facebook’s policies during the 2016 United States Presidential Election”, …“It also indicates Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s improper data-gathering practices months before news outlets reported on the issue,”

The filing continues; “as early as September 2015, a DC-based Facebook employee warned the company that Cambridge Analytica” was doing something that is currently redacted and “received responses” – also redacted – relating to “Cambridge Analytica’s data-scraping practices”.

The fact that a Facebook employee was aware of the possible inappropriate activity by Cambridge Analytica several months before the Guardian’s December 2015 report appears to be new information.

When asked the question of when Facebook employees first learned that Cambridge Analytica was violating its policies through data-scraping, a Facebook spokesperson responded:

“Facebook was not aware of the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015. When Facebook learned about Kogan’s breach of Facebook’s data use policies, we took action.”

 

However, the Facebook spokesperson did not immediately reply to a follow up question, asking when Facebook first learned that Kogan/GSR was engaging in extensive data scraping.

According to The Guardian, Facebook will face off with the District of Columbia in court on Friday, where a judge will hear arguments over the company’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The judge may also decide then whether to keep the email exchange sealed.

Sources: The Guardian, Cnet