Facebook Hit With New Suit, Faces FTC Privacy Probe

Facebook and President Trump's data consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, have been hit with a lawsuit by Cook County, Illinois over reports that the consultancy harvested 50 million Facebook users' personal data.

The complaint, filed Friday, alleges that the companies violated an Illinois consumer protection law by making misrepresentations to state residents.

"This lawsuit seeks to right the wrongs created by Cambridge Analytica’s and Facebook’s blatant disregard and misuse of sensitive, personal data belonging to the People of the State of Illinois," Kimberly Foxx, State’s Attorney of Cook County, alleges in a complaint filed in Cook County Circuit Court. "Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to secretly harvest its users’ data and build psychographic profiles of each of them so that it could influence and manipulate their behavior in the 2016 presidential election."

The new complaint adds to Facebook's mounting troubles stemming from the debacle. In addition to other lawsuits, and calls to testify on Capitol Hill, the company also faces an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. That agency on Monday took the unusual step of confirming that it had opened a "non-public investigation" of the company.

"The FTC takes very seriously recent press reports raising substantial concerns about the privacy practices of Facebook," Tom Pahl, acting director of the Consumer Protection bureau, stated.

The growing controversy stems from reports that Cambridge Analytica obtained personal data of 50 million Facebook users from Alexsandr Kogan, a professor who collected the information in 2014 via his personality-quiz app "thisisyourdigitallife." That app was downloaded by 270,000 Facebook users, but Kogan was able to gather information about millions of those users' friends.

In April of 2015, Facebook stopped allowing developers to access data about users' friends. But in 2014, when Kogan's app scraped the data, Facebook allowed developers to glean information about users' friends, subject to their privacy settings. Facebook's terms of service prohibited developers from sharing that information.

Facebook learned in 2015 that Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data, and asked the consultancy to destroy it. The social networking service says it believed at the time that Cambridge Analytica did so.

The Cook County complaint faults Facebook for failing to stop Cambridge Analytica from acquiring the data, as well as failing to inform users about the data transfers.

"Facebook represented to its users that their personal data would be protected in accordance with its user and developer agreements," the complaint alleges. "Despite these material representations, Facebook permitted third parties, including Cambridge Analytica, to collect and harvest its users’ personal data."

The complaint adds that Facebook's failure to notify people about the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting allowed the social networking service to avoid a backlash and the possibility of mass account deactivations.

Foxx's complaint also alleges that Cambridge Analytica duped users about the "thisisyourdigitallife" app by misrepresenting that the app would be used for academic purposes. The app reportedly was created by Kogan, but the complaint refers to it as a Cambridge Analytica app.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, who was suspended from the company this week, boasted to an undercover reporter that the company's extensive ad targeting helped Trump win the presidency. Cambridge Analytica denies using the Facebook data on Trump's behalf.

Cook County is being represented by the Edelson law firm, which has brought numerous privacy lawsuits against tech companies, including Facebook, Netflix and comScore.

The new FTC investigation is expected to focus on whether Facebook violated its 2012 consent decree with the FTC. That settlement -- which grew out of allegations that Facebook was sharing users' information without their consent -- prohibits the company from misrepresenting its privacy practices.

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