The Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have launched an inquiry into Cambridge Analytica, the data mining firm that last month announced it would be shutting down amid the Facebook privacy scandal that embroiled the social network starting back in March. The investigation, the existence of which was first reported this evening by The New York Times, is still in the early stages and we don’t yet know if it has anything to do with Cambridge Analytica’s connections to the 2016 presidential campaign of President Donald Trump, according to The Times.
The firm supposedly provided ad targeting expertise for Trump’s campaign based on data it acquired from Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan, who gathered the data on as many as 87 million Facebook users using a quiz app that siphoned the information from its users’ friends lists. Kogan then packaged and sold that data in violation of Facebook’s terms of service. The DOJ and FBI are reportedly looking into whether Cambridge Analytica violated American election laws by acquiring the data and using it to inform its services, which were based on the idea that such data could help campaigns create profiles of American voters whose behaviors could then be swayed by specific ad targeting.
The investigation is also looking into the company’s financial history, in particular its relationship to certain banks, and how it may have used the data it gathered from Facebook and other online sources, according to The Times. The report says one of the prosecutors involved is Brian Kidd, the assistant chief of the DOJ’s securities and financial fraud division who last month traveled to the UK to interview Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Wylie was one of the primary sources that informed The New York Times and The Guardian’s initial pair of reports that unearthed the scandal’s implications following Facebook’s banning of Cambridge Analytica from its platform in March.
The DOJ and FBI’s work does not immediately appear to be linked to the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, who is looking into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and its interference in the 2016 US election. The domestic investigation is also separate from the one led by the National Crime Agency of Britain, which is leading the UK’s criminal inquiry into Cambridge Analytica. In particular, the National Crimes Agency is looking into former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix’s admissions of bribery, blackmail, and other forms of foreign election interference caught on tape by undercover reporters for the UK’s Channel 4.
As for Facebook’s role in all of this, the company has reportedly been contacted by the DOJ and FBI, but that is the extent of its known involvement, The Times reports. Just yesterday, Facebook published an update on its internal investigation into other apps and services that may have misused its generous user data collection tools before a clamping down of its API limitations back in 2014. It turns out that “around 200” apps were found in violation of Facebook’s terms of service and suspended as a result, the company announced. Facebook is not naming any of the apps at the moment, but it is conducting further investigation into whether any of the app makers misused in the data in ways similar to Kogan and Cambridge Analytica. That process will involve extensive interviews with app developers and possibly even on-site audits.