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Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica data misuse earlier than reported – court filing

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3/21/2019 Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco
Mark Zuckerberg wearing a suit and tie: After the Cambridge Analytica revelations became an international scandal, Mark Zuckerberg stated Facebook learned of the data sharing in 2015 from journalists at the Guardian. © AP After the Cambridge Analytica revelations became an international scandal, Mark Zuckerberg stated Facebook learned of the data sharing in 2015 from journalists at the Guardian.

Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica’s “improper data-gathering practices” months before the Guardian first reported on them in December 2015, according to a court filing by the attorney general for Washington DC.

The new information “could suggest that Facebook has consistently mislead [sic]” British lawmakers “about what it knew and when about Cambridge Analytica”, tweeted Damian Collins, the chair of the House of Commons digital culture media and sport select committee (DCMS) in response to the filing.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said: “Facebook absolutely did not mislead anyone about this timeline.”

But the filing raises new questions about when Facebook first learned about the harvesting of tens of millions of users’ personal data for the now defunct political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

This timeline has long been complicated by the different corporate entities involved in the data misuse. The data was extracted from Facebook by GSR, a company formed by the former Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan, then transferred to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL.

Related: The Cambridge Analytica scandal changed the world – but it didn't change Facebook

The data extraction, though highly controversial, was not against Facebook’s policies, which at the time allowed GSR to take information not only from users who consented but from all their friends. It was the transfer of the data from GSR to SCL that was against Facebook’s policies, the company has long maintained.

After the Cambridge Analytica revelations became an international scandal, Mark Zuckerberg stated that Facebook “learned from journalists at The Guardian that Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica” in 2015. The article detailing this data sharing was published on 11 December 2015.

The attorney general for Washington DC sued Facebook over its failure to protect user data from Cambridge Analytica in late 2018. Facebook has sought to have the case dismissed and to seal a document – currently redacted in filings – that the DC attorney general cited as evidence in his opposition to the motion to dismiss.

The document is “an email exchange between Facebook employees discussing how Cambridge Analytica (and others) violated Facebook’s policies”, according to a Monday court filing by the DC attorney general.

Those emails include “candid employee assessments that multiple third-party applications accessed and sold consumer data in violation of Facebook’s policies during the 2016 United States Presidential Election”, according to the filing. “It also indicates Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s improper data-gathering practices months before news outlets reported on the issue,” the filing continues.

The filing further asserts that “as early as September 2015, a DC-based Facebook employee warned the company that Cambridge Analytica” was doing something that is currently redacted and “received responses” – also redacted – relating to “Cambridge Analytica’s data-scraping practices”.

Related: Facebook faces fresh questions over when it knew of data harvesting

That a Facebook employee was aware of possibly improper activity by Cambridge Analytica months prior to the Guardian’s December 2015 report appears to be new information.

Asked when Facebook employees first learned that Cambridge Analytica was violating its policies through data-scraping, a Facebook spokesperson responded: “Facebook was not aware of the transfer of data from Kogan/GSR to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015. When Facebook learned about Kogan’s breach of Facebook’s data use policies, we took action.”

The spokesperson did not immediately respond to a follow up query asking when Facebook first learned that Kogan/GSR was engaging in extensive data scraping.

Facebook will face off with the District of Columbia in court on Friday, where a judge will hear arguments over the company’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The judge may also decide then whether to keep the email exchange sealed.

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