Facebook said late Friday that it had suspended Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), along with its political data analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica, for violating its policies on data collection and retention. The companies, which operated the data operations for Donald Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign, are widely credited with helping Trump target voters more effectively on Facebook than his rival, Hillary Clinton. While the exact nature of its role remains somewhat mysterious, Facebook's revelation suggests that the company obtained user data that could have given it an unfair advantage to reach voters.
Facebook said it can not determine if the data in question could have been used in conjunction with the election campaigns or how. Cambridge Analytica did not respond immediately to a request for comments.
In a blog post, Facebook's deputy general counsel Paul Grewal explained how SCL took possession of the user's data. In 2015, Aleksandr Kogan, professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge, created an application called "thisisyourdigitallife" that promised to predict aspects of the personalities of users. Around 270,000 people downloaded it and logged in through Facebook, giving Kogan access to information about their city of residence, Facebook content they had liked and information about their friends.
Kogan passed the data to SCL and a man named Christopher Wylie of a data collection firm known as Eunoia Technologies, in violation of Facebook rules that prevent app developers from giving away or selling personal information about users. Facebook found out about the violation that year and removed its Facebook application. He also asked Kogan and his associates to certify that they had destroyed the incorrectly collected data. Everyone said they did it.
"If it is true, this is another unacceptable violation of the trust and the commitments that they assumed."
"Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, all the data was not deleted," Grewal wrote. "We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims, if it is true, this is another unacceptable breach of the trust and compromises that they assumed, we are suspending SCL / Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, waiting for more information" .
The suspension is not permanent, said a Facebook spokesman. But suspended users would have to take unspecified measures to certify that they would comply with Facebook's terms of service.
The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica in June 2016 to execute its data operations. On the other hand, he had hired a digital marketing company called Giles-Parscale to run his online advertising campaigns. Sean Illing established the connection in Vox:
Kushner hired a man named Brad Parscale, a Texas-based digital expert who had previously worked for the Trump team. According to Confessore and Hakim, Cambridge Analytica convinced Parscale (who agreed to be interviewed by the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives) to "prove the company". The decision was reinforced by Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon, who was also vice president president of Cambridge Analytica.
It is not clear to what extent Cambridge Analytica helped (Parscale denied that Cambridge was of any use in a recent 60 Minutes interview), but we do know that Trump's digital operation was surprisingly effective. Samuel Woolley, who directs the Computational Propaganda project at the Oxford Internet Institute, discovered that a disproportionate number of pro-Trump messages spread through automated robots and anti-Hillary propaganda. The Trump bots, reported at the time of the election, outnumbered Clinton by five to one.