Why Facebook Suspended the Accounts of the Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower

March 19, 2018, 12:29 PM UTC

Facebook has suspended the accounts of Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who exposed how Cambridge Analytica allegedly obtained and misused the personal data of 50 million Facebook users.

Cambridge Analytica is a right-leaning, U.K.-based company that once boasted Steve Bannon as a vice-president. It aims to help political parties target voters with tailored messaging, based on information gleaned from a variety of sources.

A pair of bombshell articles hit on the weekend—one from the Observer and the other from the New York Times—alleging that Cambridge Analytica surreptitiously acquired data on 50 million Facebook users. The data was apparently collected through a personality-test Facebook app that was devised by a University of Cambridge academic called Aleksandr Kogan, with Wylie’s help.

The Observer described Wylie as a Cambridge Analytica employee at the time the data was taken, in 2014, although the company asserts he was a contractor. Either way, he says he helped build Cambridge Analytica’s “psychological warfare” tool.

And now Facebook (FB) has suspended Wylie’s accounts on the social network and on Instagram, which it owns. Carole Cadwalladr, the British journalist who spearheaded both the Observer and NYT‘s Cambridge Analytica exposés, tweeted that Wylie was also banned by WhatsApp, which Facebook also owns, but WhatsApp contacted Fortune on Monday to say this was not the case.

As Wylie notes there, Facebook stands accused of knowing for two years that Cambridge Analytica had broken its rules—and quite possibly some laws—but did not inform its users that their personal data had been taken.

Facebook told CBS News that “Mr. Wylie has refused to cooperate with us until we lift the suspension on his account.”

“Given he said he ‘exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,’ we cannot do this at this time,” the company said.

Whether or not Facebook was justified in suspending Wylie’s accounts, to do so now is not a good look. Cadwalladr said on Twitter that banning the whistleblower was an “unconscionable” move on Facebook’s part.

Back in 2014, it was possible for the maker of a third-party Facebook app to get their hands on the details of the friends of all those people who voluntarily used the app—as happened with Kogan’s personality test, where only 320,000 people actually used it. However, Facebook removed that capability not long after. According to Wylie, Facebook allowed Kogan to take all of this data at the time because he claimed it was for academic use.

Kogan is a faculty member at both the University of Cambridge and St Petersburg University. Cambridge Analytics denies still having the data he took, and also denies that it was used in the company’s work for Donald Trump’s campaign ahead of the 2016 election.

This article was updated to note WhatsApp’s denial that it suspended Wylie’s account.

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