The data analytics firm that used voter-targeting tactics to help President Donald Trump clinch the White House improperly collected information on more than 50 million Facebook users, the New York Times alleged Saturday in a report that raises further questions about both companies’ conduct during and after the 2016 election.
The Times article, and a companion piece published by the Observer in London, landed hours after Facebook announced that it had suspended the firm, Cambridge Analytica, while investigating whether it had improperly kept data on as many as 270,000 users.
But the newest reports raise the prospect that the breach was far broader than what Facebook copped to Friday night — while tying the privacy violations directly to Cambridge’s work for Trump’s campaign and its alleged entanglements with Russia.
The Times quoted an anonymous Cambridge employee as saying that hundreds of gigabytes of unencrypted Facebook data still exist on Cambridge’s servers, contradicting assurances given to congressional investigators. Until Friday, the newspaper added, “Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control.”
Enough is enough, top Senate intelligence committee Democrat Mark Warner said in a statement Saturday.
“This is more evidence that the online political advertising market is essentially the Wild West,” said the Virginia senator, who has sponsored legislation to force greater transparency in online political advertising. “Whether it’s allowing Russians to purchase political ads, or extensive micro-targeting based on ill-gotten user data, it’s clear that, left unregulated, this market will continue to be prone to deception and lacking in transparency.”
Another Democrat, Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has co-sponsored the ad transparency legislation, said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg must testify about the situation.
“This is a major breach that must be investigated. It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves,” the Minnesota senator said in a statement. “They say ‘trust us,’ but Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before the Senate judiciary committee about what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters.”
The Times said Cambridge Analytica — which has deep ties to Republican donor Robert Mercer and conservative firebrand Steve Bannon — used the harvested information to build a powerful political tool as political campaigns were increasingly looking to sway voters on popular digital platforms.
The company has denied the claims, which date back to 2014.
In a pair of statements, Cambridge Analytica said it had hired Global Science Research, a company run by U.K. professor Aleksandr Kogan, to conduct a “large scale research project” in the U.S. The company said it was unaware that Kogan’s data violated Facebook’s terms of service and subsequently deleted it at Facebook’s insistence.
“No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign,” the company said Saturday. “Cambridge Analytica only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly.”
Facebook, for its part, sought to get ahead of the Times article with an announcement late Friday night that it had suspended Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, as well as a third firm, Eunoia Technologies, from the social network. Facebook said they had collected information from 270,000 users who voluntarily downloaded an app that Kogan created — though friends of those users with more relaxed privacy settings may have also had their data swept up.
“People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked,” Paul Grewal, Facebook’s vice president and deputy general counsel, said in a statement. “Nevertheless, this was a scam. Mr. Kogan misled us all.
“Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook,” Grewal added. “If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules.”
Nevertheless, the New York Times report will undoubtedly create headaches for both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Each has come under fire from Washington lawmakers for their involvement in the 2016 president election, which according to U.S. intelligence agencies was marked by interference from Russian actors looking to undermine Hillary Clinton and, eventually, boost Trump’s prospects.
Cambridge has been called upon to provide both information and testimony to congressional and FBI investigators exploring the extent of the election meddling and whether affiliates of the Trump campaign colluded with Russians. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, for example, said last year that CEO Alexander Nix had contacted him in an effort to obtain hacked emails from the Clinton campaign.
The company’s ties to U.S. conservatives are many. Mercer and Bannon played key roles in helping the company establish a foothold in U.S. politics, the Times report explains. The company first used data to target voters during the 2014 midterm elections. And before switching to assist the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica was tapped to work on the presidential bid of Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Cambridge has also done work for a super PAC created by former U.S. diplomat John Bolton, who’s been reported to be a potential candidate for White House national security adviser if Trump dismisses H.R. McMaster.
Meanwhile, Facebook has been hauled to Capitol Hill to face a battery of questions from lawmakers concerned that the network did not do enough to prevent fake news and foreign trolls from manipulating American voters throughout the election cycle. Facebook, Google and Twitter found that ads, pages and fake accounts aiming to stoke political and social discord reached more than 125 million internet users.
The Times story also raises questions about whether Cambridge and SCL may have violated U.S. law by having Canadian or European employees working on contracts for American political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica told the Times that all “personnel in strategic roles were U.S. nationals or green card holders,” the newspaper said.