SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – With his company slapped with a second lawsuit in as many days over a data-mining scandal that likely influenced the 2016 presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg broke his days-long silence to acknowledge mistakes were made.
“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “I've been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn't happen again.”
Data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica is accused of obtaining personal information of about 50 million Facebook users without their authorization and weaponizing that information on behalf of now-President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Zuckerberg acknowledged policies regarding third-party apps in 2013 likely contributed to a Cambridge University graduate student’s ability to mine data of millions of Facebook users and then sell it to an analytics company that used the information to sway opinions in the most pivotal political contests of the decade: the Brexit vote and the presidential election, both in 2016.
“It was also a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it,” Zuckerberg said.
Criticism of Zuckerberg’s reluctance to speak in the wake of the scandal that broke over the weekend had begun to mount, with the company’s stock price falling 8 percent since trading opened Monday – costing investors nearly $35 billion.
Investors filed a shareholder class action in California federal court Tuesday, saying Facebook misled users and investors about its ability to protect user data.
Facebook user Lauren Price filed a federal lawsuit against Facebook on Wednesday, saying the company failed to protect her personal information and that of nearly 50 million others.
“This case involves the absolute disregard with which defendants have chosen to treat plaintiff’s personal information,” Price says in a 15-page complaint filed in the Northern District of California.
She says Facebook’s negligence caused users to be swept up in a cyberwarfare campaign without their knowledge.
“In effect, Cambridge Analytica was mounting a campaign of psychological warfare on millions of hapless victims, without their knowledge or consent,” Price said.
Facebook has resisted calling the incident a data breach but did acknowledge a breach of trust with its customers.
“While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today, that doesn't change what happened in the past,” Zuckerberg wrote Wednesday.
In June 2016, Trump’s campaign hired Cambridge Analytica – ties already deep due to the firm’s connections to the Mercer family, major Republican donors who sided with Trump early on and have remained fervent devotees.
Rebekah Mercer, the co-owner of Breitbart News, sits on the Cambridge Analytica board. Her father Robert invested $15 million into the company on the advice of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. A hedge-fund manager, Robert Mercer retains a significant ownership stake in the firm.
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix appeared to be caught on camera offering bribes to public officials and has been suspended while the company conducts an investigation, the company said on Tuesday.
Cambridge Analytica participated in 44 elections in the United States in 2014 and was also active in the “Leave EU” effort in the United Kingdom. That campaign, like Trump’s, was ultimately successful and Britain and the European Union are now in the years-long process of separating.
Cambridge Analytica’s role in both are now the subject of separate criminal investigations on both sides of the pond.
ABC News reported Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will look at the intersections of Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Facebook’s role in the evolving scandal comes by way of Aleksandr Kogan, a data researcher who worked for Cambridge University back in 2013. He developed a personality quiz application designed for the profiling of willing participants.
The app not only collected the information of the approximately 300,000 participants in the quiz but also solicited and accessed data from users’ friend networks, ultimately mining enough data to create millions of personality profiles.
Facebook has since said that third-party developers like Kogan were allowed access to such data for academic purposes, but signed agreements to delete the data at the end of their studies and promised not to use the data for commercial purposes.
Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, says that instead of deleting the data Kogan sold it to Cambridge Analytica, which then weaponized it in various electoral campaigns.
Kogan told The Guardian on Wednesday that he is being scapegoated by both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
“Honestly we thought we were acting perfectly appropriately,” he said. “We thought we were doing something that was really normal.”
Zuckerberg said Wednesday that apps like Kogan’s gained traction in 2007, when Facebook decided to make its apps more social.
“Your calendar should be able to show your friends' birthdays, your maps should show where your friends live, and your address book should show their pictures,” Zuckerberg said of the trend to put friend information in its apps. “To do this, we enabled people to log into apps and share who their friends were and some information about them.”
The company soon became concerned the apps were ripe for abuse and said it installed protections beginning in 2014 that didn’t allow Kogan’s personality quiz app the same reach it had the year before.
But Wylie said Facebook had a much more lax attitude about the data of millions of users being pulled from their system than they have publicly let on.
“Facebook could see it was happening,” Wylie told The Guardian. “Their security protocols were triggered because Kogan’s apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So they were like, ‘Fine’.”
Facebook says that Cambridge Analytica certified they had deleted the data in a 2015 legal document.
Cambridge Analytica maintains it did delete the data it obtained from Kogan after learning how it was gathered.
“This Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign; personality targeted advertising was not carried out for this client either,” the company said on Monday.
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