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New Facebook emails show employee concerns about Cambridge Analytica data scraping months before media reports

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Facebook has published internal emails showing staff discussing their concerns that Cambridge Analytica was scraping user data in September 2015. These discussions occurred more than two months before Facebook says it became aware of the unauthorized sale of user data to Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook is releasing the document as part of an agreement with the District of Columbia Attorney General and says that the document release proves that there are two separate issues:

  1. “Unconfirmed reports of scraping – accessing or collecting public data from our products using automated means” that were discussed by Facebook staff in September 2015
  2. “Policy violations by Aleksandr Kogan, an app developer who sold user data to Cambridge Analytica” which Facebook says it became aware of in December 2015

Despite saying that these are two separate issues, Facebook believes that “this document has the potential to confuse two different events surrounding our knowledge of Cambridge Analytica.”

Facebook also appears to be burying links to its post about this document with the homepage of the Facebook Newsroom, which usually features links to all of Facebook’s latest posts, containing no link to this particular post.

The document itself contains 10 pages of internal Facebook email discussions that took place between September 22, 2015 and May 9, 2016. In the emails, Facebook employees discuss their suspicions that Cambridge Analytica and other companies are involved in scraping user data.

Cambridge Analytica is first mentioned on September 22, 2015 with an email that says:

“Our team has been spending a lot of time lately attempting to clarify to clients in the political space how our policies apply to pitches coming from vendors regarding matching social data to voter files. You’ll recall TrendPo using scraped engager audiences last year to create custom audiences – we suspect many of these companies are doing similar types of scraping, the largest and most aggressive on the conservative side being Cambridge Analytica a sketchy (to say the least) data modeling company that has penetrated our market deeply, Because the frequency with which this is coming up has increased drastically in the past few weeks, we’d like to work with your team to make sure we have clear channels between our teams, Specifically, we need answers to the following questions:

Can we develop template messaging to advise clients on how our policies apply to these types of services? Does this already exist? (I believe I remember enforcement relying on a few different policies last year).

Can you help us investigate what Cambridge specifically is actually doing?

One vendor offering beyond Cambridge we’re concerned with (given their prominence in the industry) is NationBuilder’s “Social Matching,” on which they’ve pitched our clients and their website simply says “Automatically link the emails in your database to Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Klout profiles, and pull in social engagement activity.” I’m not sure what that means, and don’t want to incorrectly tell folks to avoid it, but it is definitely being conflated in the market with other less above board services, Can you help clarify what they’re actually doing?

Please let us know if you need any more information, Thanks in advance!”

Kogan is first mentioned in the emails on December 11, 2015 which is when Facebook says it became aware of him selling data to Cambridge Analytica.

According to Facebook, the conversations which mention Cambridge Analytica as early as September 22, 2015 are based on “unsubstantiated rumors from a competitor of Cambridge Analytica” and show that an engineer looked into the concerns but found no evidence of data scraping.

Facebook adds that even if evidence of data scraping by Cambridge Analytica was discovered, it “would not naturally indicate the scale of the misconduct that Kogan had engaged in.”

This public release of these emails follows reporting from March which was based on some of these same emails and suggested that Facebook employees were aware of Cambridge Analytica’s improper data gathering practices months before public reports.

Facebook’s response to this March reporting was similar to the response it’s giving now with the company saying at the time: “The data-scraping referenced in the filing was not the same data harvesting that has become synonymous with Cambridge Analytica’s name over the past year.”

However, when reporting on these events in March, The Guardian suggested that the timeline has been “complicated for a long time because of the different corporate entities involved in Cambridge Analytica’s data misuse.

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