Facebook denies making contradictory claims on Cambridge Analytica and other ‘sketchy’ apps
Last month the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee wrote to the company to raise what it said were discrepancies in evidence Facebook has given to international parliamentarians versus evidence submitted in response to the Washington, DC Attorney General — which is suing Facebook on its home turf over the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal.
Yesterday Bloomberg obtained Facebook’s response to the committee.
In the letter, Rebecca Stimson, the company’s head of U.K. public policy, denies any inconsistency in evidence submitted on both sides of the Atlantic, writing:
The evidence given to the Committees by Mike Schroepfer (Chief Technology Officer), Lord Allan (Vice President for Policy Solutions), and other Facebook representatives is entirely consistent with the allegations in the SEC Complaint filed 24 July 2019. In their evidence, Facebook representatives truthfully answered questions about when the company first learned of Aleksandr Kogan / GSR’s improper transfer of data to Cambridge Analytica, which was in December 2015 through The Guardian’s reporting. We are aware of no evidence to suggest that Facebook learned any earlier of that improper transfer. As we have told regulators, and many media stories have since reported, we heard speculation about data scraping by Cambridge Analytica in September 2015. We have also testified publicly that we first learned Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica in December 2015. These are two different things and this is not new information.
Stimson goes on to claim that Facebook merely heard “rumours in September 2015 that Cambridge Analytica was promoting its ability to scrape user data from public Facebook pages.” (In statements made earlier this year to the press on this same point Facebook has also used the word “speculation” to refer to the internal concerns raised by its staff, writing that “employees heard speculation that Cambridge Analytica was scraping data.”)
In the latest letter, Stimson repeats Facebook’s earlier line about data scraping being common for public pages (which may be true, but plenty of Facebook users’ pages aren’t public to anyone other than their hand-picked friends so… ), before claiming it’s not the same as the process by which Cambridge Analytica obtained Facebook data (i.e. by paying a developer on Facebook’s platform to build an app that harvested users’ and users friends’ data).
“The scraping of data from public pages (which is unfortunately common for any internet service) is different from, and has no relationship to, the illicit transfer to third parties of data obtained by an app developer (which was the subject of the December 2015 Guardian article and of Facebook representatives’ evidence),” she writes, suggesting a “sketchy” data modeling company with deep Facebook platform penetration looked like “business as usual” for Facebook management back in 2015.
As we’ve reported before, it has emerged this year — via submissions to other U.S. legal proceedings against Facebook — that staff working for its political advertising division raised internal concerns about what Cambridge Analytica was up to in September 2015, months prior to The Guardian article which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has claimed is the point when he personally learned what Cambridge Analytica was doing on his platform.
These Facebook staff described Cambridge Analytica as a “sketchy (to say the least) data modeling company that has penetrated our market deeply” — months before the newspaper published its scoop on the story, per an SEC complaint which netted Facebook a $ 100 million fine, in addition to the FTC’s $ 5 billion privacy penalty.
Nonetheless, Facebook is once again claiming there’s nothing but “rumors” to see here.
The DCMS committee also queried Facebook’s flat denial to the Washington, DC Attorney General that the company knew of any other apps misusing user data; failed to take proper measures to secure user data by failing to enforce its own platform policy; and failed to disclose to users when their data was misused — pointing out that Facebook reps told it on multiple occasions that Facebook knew of other apps violating its policies and had taken action against them.
Again, Facebook denies any contradiction whatsoever here.
“The particular allegation you cite asserts that Facebook knew of third party applications that violated its policies and failed to take reasonable measures to enforce against them,” writes Stimson. “As we have consistently stated to the Committee and elsewhere, we regularly take action against apps and developers who violate our policies. We therefore appropriately, and consistently with what we told the Committee, denied the allegation.”
So, turns out, Facebook was only flat denying some of the allegations in para 43 of the Washington, DC Attorney General’s complaint. But the company doesn’t see bundling responses to multiple allegations under one blanket denial as in any way misleading…
In a tweet responding to Facebook’s latest denial, DCMS committee chair Damian Collins dubbed the company’s response “typically disingenuous” — before pointing out: “They didn’t previously disclose to us concerns about Cambridge Analytica prior to Dec 2015, or say what they did about it & haven’t shared results of investigations into other Apps.”
Typically disingenuous response from @facebook to @CommonsCMS letter. They didn’t previously disclose to us concerns about Cambridge Analytica prior to Dec 2015, or say what they did about it & haven’t shared results of investigations into other Apps https://t.co/kUj26BC4F5
— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) August 12, 2019
On the app audit issue, Stimson’s letter justifies Facebook’s failure to provide the DCMS committee with the requested information on other “sketchy” apps it’s investigating, writing this is because the investigation — which CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook blog post on March 21, 2018; saying then that it would “investigate all apps that had access to large amounts of information”; “conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity”; “ban any developer from our platform that does not agree to a thorough audit”; and ban any developers found to have misused user data; and “tell everyone affected by those apps” — is, er, “ongoing.”
More than a year ago Facebook did reveal that it had suspended around 200 suspicious apps out of “thousands” reviewed. However, updates on Zuckerberg’s great app audit have been thin on the ground since then, to say the least.
“We will update the Committee as we publicly share additional information about that extensive effort,” says Stimson now.