By David Z. Morris
March 17, 2018

Cambridge Analytica, a data research firm closely linked to the campaign of President Donald Trump, has been suspended from Facebook. The firm was suspended along with its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, and two individual collaborators.

According to multiple sources, a researcher working with the firm broke Facebook’s rules to harvest data from more than 50 million user profiles in 2014. That stolen data, according to reports, became the foundation for Cambridge Analytica’s efforts to target voters for Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign.

Facebook’s Friday announcement of the suspension appeared timed to pre-empt reports about the breach in the New York Times and The Guardian.

Cambridge Analytica’s goal, starting in 2013, was to use data modeling to influence voters based on their emotional makeup. Data scientist and former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, speaking to The Guardian, described this as an effort to “target their inner demons.”

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But the firm did not initially have access to the vast amount of data needed to achieve its goals. It got it using a Facebook personality quiz called “thisisyourdigitallife,” created for Cambridge Analytica by Cambridge University psychographics professor Aleksandr Kogan in 2014. About 270,000 users of the quiz granted permission for their data to be collected for research purposes.

But according to the Times, the app also collected the data of those quiz-takers’ Facebook friends, without permission. About 30 million of those profiles, mostly of U.S. voters, contained enough information to connect them to other data sources and build detailed profiles. According to Facebook, Kogan violated its policies by passing data on to Cambridge Analytica and another firm, Eunoia Technologies. Kogan and Wylie have been suspended from Facebook along with SCL and Cambridge Analytica.

In a statement sent to Fortune, Cambridge Analytica claimed it had contracted Kogan and his company, Global Science Research, to obtain data only in line with Facebook’s rules.

The event is being described as a data breach of the social media platform, though Facebook disputes that characterization, saying Kogan “gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels” before misusing it.

Facebook became aware of the activity by late 2015, and ordered the data destroyed by everyone Kogan had shared it with. According to Facebook, Cambridge Analytica claimed to have complied, but Facebook says it became aware this week that “not all data was deleted.” Cambridge Analytica claims it did delete the data according to Facebook’s request.

Facebook has not commented on why it did not publicly disclose the initial abuse. According to the Guardian, a Facebook official testified in hearings before British Parliament last month that Cambridge Analytica did not have Facebook user data.

The potential impact of the suspension on Trump’s reelection campaign is unclear. Cambridge Analytica will no longer be able to buy advertising on Facebook, but according to the Times, the organization still possesses “most or all” of the data it illicitly collected. That data, or systems trained using it, could still be used to direct campaign efforts by clients.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect a statement from Cambridge Analytica.

 

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