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Facebook loophole allowed abuse of personal data

Facebook under fire
Facebook under fire 09:08

A loophole allowed a prominent data analytics firm that worked with President Trump's campaign exploit user data to harvest 50 million profiles of U.S. voters without their permission, according to a whistleblower who once worked to help acquire the data. Facebook said it learned in 2015 that University of Cambridge researcher Aleksandr Kogan violated its privacy policy by passing data from a mobile app called "thisisyourdigitallife."

Wired senior reporter Issie Lapowsky said on CBSN "A lot of the spotlight is going to be on Cambridge Analytica because it seems like they were being a little deceitful here, but I think we have to look equally critically at Facebook," Lapowsky said. "This is just emblematic of such a crucial underlying issue with Facebook: they've created this incredibly powerful data operation and sell really robust data to their clients but they have very few mechanisms in place to ensure people aren't going to abuse that data."

Lapowsky said about 270,000 users signed up for the app, allowing Kogan to offer this data and pass it to Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). "Facebook had a loophole at the time where app developers could not only see the data of the people who actually proactively downloaded the app, but they could also see into their entire friend network," said Lapowsky.

"You start out with 270,000 people but you fan out to 50 million," Lapowsky said. "About 30 million had enough information that Cambridge could develop what they call their 'psychographic' profiles."

The profiles allow firms to predict the voting likelihoods of individual people based on personality -- and Facebook is a treasure trove for this information.

How 50M Facebook profiles were harvested 06:19

Sources close to the company told Lapowsky that some of the Facebook user data was visible to a select few employees within Cambridge as recently as 2017. "One has to wonder why this change is coming in 2018 when we know that Facebook was first alerted to this in 2015," she said.

The Guardian reporter Carole Cadwalladr told CBSN that Facebook threatened to sue in a bid to prevent the news outlet from publishing an exposé on the data harvesting. She believes Facebook didn't inform users of the misuse of data because it wasn't in the company's best interest. The Guardian story, based on interviews with whistleblower Chris Wylie who worked for the firm, published online on Saturday.

Cambridge Analytica was hired by President Trump's 2016 campaign. Mr. Trump's 2016 campaign digital guru, Brad Parscale, told "60 Minutes" last year that they didn't use the controversial "psychographic" practice because it "doesn't work." 

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