- Political research firm Cambridge Analytica may have had access to private Facebook messages between 1,500 users and their friends.
- This detail was included in notifications Facebook sent out this week to the 87 million people potentially affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was not previously disclosed by Facebook.
- However, the researcher who provided the data to Cambridge Analytica, and the firm itself, denied it collected private messages.
This week, Facebook started to notify some 87 million users that Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica may have misappropriated their profile data to target political ads. Those notifications also included a previously-unknown detail: That Cambridge Analytica may have had access to some users’ private Facebook messages.
“A small number of people who logged into ‘This Is Your Digital Life’ also shared their own News Feed, timeline, posts and messages which may have included posts and messages from you,” the notification reads.
To be more specific, Facebook confirmed to Wired that Cambridge Analytica may have had access to messages between 1,500 users and their friends.
The whole fiasco started when a researcher named Aleksandr Kogan created a personality quiz called “This Is Your Digital Life.” While the app was only downloaded and used 270,000 times, it was set up to scrape the public profile information of not only the taker, but all of their friends as well. All told, Facebook now estimates that as many as 87 million people had their information harvested in this way.
However, at the time that “This Is Your Digital Life” was active, Facebook apps were allowed to access private message data – but only if the user actively gave permission. Facebook says that only 1,500 of the 270,000 users of “This Is Your Digital Life” chose to do so, reports Wired.
“According to our records only a very small number of people explicitly opted into sharing this information. The feature was turned off in 2015,” a Facebook spokesperson tells Business Insider. However, any private messages between one of those 1,500 users and their friends would have been accessible by “This Is Your Digital Life.”
However, both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica have denied that the information was ever put to use in targeting political ads.
In an interview with The New York Times, Kogan admitted to obtaining private messages with his app, but said he never passed them along to Cambridge Analytica. The messages were used, Kogan said, for research about how people use emojis to convey emotions.
Cambridge Analytica also denied ever handling private messages, tweeting “GSR did not share the content of any private messages with Cambridge Analytica or SCL Elections. Neither company has ever handled such data.” GSR was the company that sold Kogan’s data to Cambridge Analytica; SCL is Cambridge Analytica’s parent company.
GSR did not share the content of any private messages with Cambridge Analytica or SCL Elections. Neither company has ever handled such data.
— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) April 10, 2018
Here’s Facebook’s full statement to Business Insider:
“In 2014, Facebook’s platform policy allowed developers to request mailbox permissions but only if the person explicitly gave consent for this to happen. At the time when people provided access to their mailboxes – when Facebook messages were more of an inbox and less of a real-time messaging service – this enabled things like desktop apps that combined Facebook messages with messages from other services like SMS so that a person could access their messages all in one place. According to our records only a very small number of people explicitly opted into sharing this information. The feature was turned off in 2015.”