Facebook Reportedly Under Federal Investigation for Sharing Users’ Private Data

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating Facebook’s handling of users’ personal data, according to reports from Bloomberg and The New York Times on Tuesday. The FTC will reportedly investigate the possibility that Facebook may have violated a 2011 consumer consent agreement over the company’s data-sharing policies.

That agreement was part of a settlement between Facebook and the FTC following complaints that the social-media giant had deceived consumers. Facebook assured users that they could choose to keep their information on the site private, but then violated that claim by repeatedly allowing user data to be shared and made public, according to an FTC statement issued at the time.

As part of their settlement with the FTC, Facebook agreed to provide consumers with “clear and prominent notice” of future changes to the site’s data-sharing policies. The company also agreed to obtain users’ “express consent” before sharing their information beyond the privacy settings they have established. The FTC stated that these measures were intended to ensure Facebook did not violate promises to users in the future.

According to recent reports, the FTC’s current investigation will examine whether Facebook allowed the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica to access Facebook users’ data in violation of Facebook’s policies. The alleged FTC investigation follows reports from The Guardian and The New York Times last weekend that Cambridge Analytica had access to the personal information of more than 50 million Facebook users.

According to these reports, Cambridge Analytica played an instrumental role in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and helped to shape the campaign’s social-media strategy. The data firm was founded by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and wealthy Republican donor Robert Mercer. The firm used Facebook data to develop strategies that it claimed could influence the behavior of individual American voters.

After these reports were published, lawmakers in Britain, the E.U., and the U.S. demanded an investigation into how the political data firm was able to utilize private information from users’ Facebook profiles without those users’ knowledge or consent. Facebook’s failure to inform users whose data was harvested may violate laws in Britain and in multiple U.S. states.

According to former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, the firm gained access to information on Facebook accounts through a third-party, academic research app that offered users a personality test in exchange for access to information on their Facebook profiles and the profiles of their friends. Approximately 270,000 people used the personality-quiz app, which was used to harvest private data from more than 50 million Facebook accounts through app users’ friend networks.

Facebook’s “platform policy” for third-party apps only allowed the app to collect data from users’ friends in order to improve user experience within the app. Facebook policy prohibited this data being sold or used for advertising. The app told users that it was gathering data for academic purposes only, but Cambridge Analytica paid to acquire that data, and used it in an effort to manipulate voters in the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook has previously stated it was notified years ago that Cambridge Analytica had obtained users’ personal data, and claimed that Cambridge Analytica complied with demands to delete that data. However, according to Wylie and other former employees, Cambridge Analytica kept the Facebook data, and used it in an attempt to predict and control the behavior of American voters.

In response to these allegations, Facebook has maintained that the data was not obtained through a security breach. Over the weekend, top Facebook executives stated on Twitter that the company’s protections had not been breached, and Facebook was therefore not at fault.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is part of a larger controversy surrounding Facebook’s role in the spread of misinformation leading up to the 2016 presidential election. According to The Verge, Facebook planned to address the scandal at an emergency meeting with employees on Tuesday. Facebook stock fell by as much as 8 percent on Monday, and was down more than 5 percent on Tuesday morning after Bloomberg’s report on the FTC investigation.