Facebook may have known as early as September of 2015 that political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested data from users of the social networking service, according to court papers filed with a Washington, D.C. judge.
Facebook previously told federal lawmakers it didn't learn about the Cambridge Analytica scandal until December of 2015, when the Guardianreported that the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was using Cambridge Analytica's psychographic profiling capabilities. But court papers filed this week by Washington, D.C Attorney General Karl Racine in the District of Columbia Superior Court are raising questions about Facebook's prior statements.
Last year, it emerged that Cambridge Analytica, now defunct, amassed data from up to 87 million Facebook users. The company reportedly obtained the data from Global Science Research's Alexsandr Kogan, 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.
Racine sued Facebook last December, alleging that the company's “lax oversight” over users' data allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect data about more than 340,000 D.C. residents. Racine's new court papers in that lawsuit reference an email exchange between Facebook employees. The details of the messages are sealed for now, but Racine is asking that the messages -- which he refers to as a “document” -- be made public.
“The document is an email chain that shows Facebook employees based in Washington, D.C. ... played a leading role in responding to how third-party applications improperly sold consumer data to Cambridge Analytica,” Racine writes.
He adds that Facebook has no good reason for asking that the document remain confidential.
“Facebook's concerns about the document are ultimately reputational,” he writes. “For example, the document contains candid 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.”
Facebook told the Guardian that Cambridge Analytica may have harvested data from a source other than Kogan's app, and that the September 2015 emails may have referred to data obtained from that other source.