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Cambridge Analytica, the political data analytics company which worked for President Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, harvested data from tens of millions of Facebook users without authorization and were suspended from the social media platform on Friday following reports they still hold the data.
The firm, which is owned by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and was then headed by Steve Bannon, wanted to build tools that could profile, target and influence U.S. voters.
The data on Americans was collected using a personality test app called thisisyourdigitallife developed by Global Science Research, a company owned by University of Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan. Hundreds of thousands of users signed up and granted the app permissions to collect their data for use in academic studies, but the app went further in collecting information on the each user’s friends—extending the data pool from around 270,000 people to around 50 million.
Although the extra data was collected legally, it was then shared inappropriately with several third parties including Cambridge Analytics, part of Strategic Communication Laboratories.
“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,” Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told The Observer. “That was the basis that the entire company was built on.”
“Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair. They want to fight a culture war in America,” he continued. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”
Wylie worked at Cambridge Analytica until 2014 and showed Observer reporters a dossier of invoices and contracts, detailing the scheme that he had worked on with both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica staff. That information has since been passed to the U.K. National Crime Agency and the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Facebook first learned of the privacy and data retention policy violations in 2015 and had required that all involved give assurances that they would delete the harvested data. Facebook, however, announced on Friday that, contrary to assurances given by the companies three years ago, Cambridge Analytica had reportedly not deleted the data it had gathered without permission. It subsequently suspended Cambridge Analytica and Kogan from the platform pending an investigation.
“Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook,” Facebook’s deputy general counsel Paul Grewal wrote in a blog post published to explain the decision.
“We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information. We will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens. We will take legal action if necessary to hold them responsible and accountable for any unlawful behavior.”
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology.