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Facebook's at it again: Internal emails show it knew about Cambridge Analytica abuse 'months' before news broke

No lie, says Zuck and co, it was a separate data thing that we forgot to mention


Comment Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica's dodgy data-gathering practices at least four months before they was exposed in news reports, according to internal FB emails.

Crucially, the staff memos contradict public assurances made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as well as sworn testimony offered by the company.

Those emails remain under a court seal, at Facebook's request, although the Attorney General of Washington DC, Karl Racine, is seeking to have them revealed to all as part of his legal battle against the antisocial media giant.

Racine's motion to unseal [PDF] the files this month stated "an email exchange between Facebook employees discussing how Cambridge Analytica (and others) violated Facebook’s policies" includes sufficient detail to raise the question of whether Facebook has – yet again – given misleading or outright false statements.

The redacted request reads: "The jurisdictional facts in the document shows that as early as September 2015, a DC-based Facebook employee warned the company that Cambridge Analytica was a “[REDACTED]” asked other Facebook employees to “[REDACTED]” and received responses that Cambridge Analytica’s data-scraping practices were “[REDACTED]” with Facebook’s platform policy."

It goes on: "The Document also indicates that months later in December 2015, on the same day an article was published by The Guardian on Cambridge Analytica, a Facebook employee reported that she had '[REDACTED].'"

The reason this is critical is because Facebook has always claimed it learned of Cambridge Analytica's misuse of people's profile information – data obtained via a third-party quiz app built by Aleksandr Kogan – from press reports. Zuckerberg said in a statement more than two years later: "In 2015, we learned from journalists at The Guardian that Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica. It is against our policies for developers to share data without people's consent, so we immediately banned Kogan's app from our platform."

Zuck omitted, incidentally, that Facebook threatened to sue the newspaper if it published its story. Facebook also admitted today that its executives have claimed the same thing as their boss under oath – that the social network only learned about the data misuse from press reports.

MP unimpressed

The fact that Facebook knew about dodgy data-sharing practices at Cambridge Analytica months before it claims it did – and knew it internally rather than from an outside source as it previously claimed – sparked the British Conservative MP who has been chasing Facebook, Damian Collins to wonder whether the American giant had misled Parliament.

"This important new information could suggest that Facebook has consistently mislead the Commons about what it knew and when about Cambridge Analytica," the head of the digital culture select committee tweeted.

So how does Facebook square these internal emails with its public statements? Simple: it now claims it was talking about a completely different data-scraping action back in September 2015.

Yes, it was by the same company – Cambridge Analytica – but when Facebook says it didn't know about data scraping, it was actually talking about "the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica" and not this other, as-yet undefined data scraping by the same company. "These were two different incidents," Facebook's spokespeople said on Friday.

And, in case you're wondering, no it hasn't said what these internal emails are actually referring to or explained why it hasn't mentioned it until now, even though data scraping by the same company has embroiled it in a global scandal.

All of which fits very neatly with the Facebook that we have come to know and loathe: a company that says one thing and does another. One that, when it is caught lying, gives misleading statements and apologizes. And then, when those statements also turned out to be false, apologizes again and promises to do better.

Train wreck

The truth is that Facebook is a train wreck with executives encouraged to do whatever they wanted in order to secure Facebook's position in the digital economy and bring in revenue, regardless of laws or ethics or morals or anything else.

Its work culture is fundamentally broken with top executives making it plain that the company will obfuscate, mislead, block and bully before they even consider telling the truth – and that culture attracts more of the same.

So we have Facebook stone-cold lying about a VPN tracking app that was banned when discovered, including lying about the number of teenagers that were using it and lying about the age-verification it claimed was in place.

We have it lying about what it does with people's data and how. We have it going to enormous lengths to stop people from cutting the company off from its valuable data flows. And that's before we even hit the data-sharing scandals, and the fake news, and the livestreaming murder videos, and the millions of passwords in plain text, and the day-long outage explained as as "server configuration change."

Now it turns out that it was supplying its own version of the truth when it came the critical question of when it found out that Cambridge Analytica was abusing its systems. And, faced with that exposure, what has Facebook done? Given yet another baloney explanation.

As for the content of these internal emails in this specific scandal, the Washington DC Attorney General will argue his case today in court and the judge will decide whether to publish the document in question.

If the judge does decide to publish the emails, we will no doubt be treated to yet another false explanation from the inhabitants of Hacker Way. ®

Updated to add

In a full statement, Facebook told us in response to the motion to unseal:

Facebook was not aware of the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015, as we have testified under oath. These were two different incidents: in September 2015, employees heard speculation that Cambridge Analytica was scraping data, something that is unfortunately common for any internet service. In December 2015, we first learned through media reports that Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica, and we took action. Those were two different things.

The case, District of Columbia v Facebook Inc, number 2018 CA 008715 B, was first filed in December 2018. The motion to unseal, filed March 18, was spotted by NBC News journo Cyrus Farivar earlier this week. The latest hearing was due to take place today.

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