The federal investigation into Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal—in which prior versions of Facebook’s advertising API allowed the shady election data firm to partner with an app to harvest data on at least 87 million users without their consent—has expanded to include a multi-agency inquiry into the social network’s data practices.
Per the Washington Post, five people familiar with the investigation said the Department of Justice is now joined by “representatives for the FBI, the SEC and the Federal Trade Commission... in its inquiries about the two companies,” and specifically Facebook’s “actions and statements” over a period of years. The paper wrote the multi-agency inquiry is focused on what Facebook knew years ago and what it failed to tell “users or investors,” as well as whether there were “discrepancies in more recent accounts” like executives’ testimony before Congress.
The Post wrote that CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s evasive congressional testimony is considered part of the investigation:
The questioning from federal investigators centers on what Facebook knew three years ago and why the company didn’t reveal it at the time to its users or investors, as well as any discrepancies in more recent accounts, among other issues, according to these people. The Capitol Hill testimony of Facebook officials, including Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, also is being scrutinized as part of the probe, said people familiar with the federal inquiries.
Facebook confirmed that it had received questions from the federal agencies and said it was sharing information and cooperating in other ways. “We are cooperating with officials in the US, UK and beyond,” said Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld. “We’ve provided public testimony, answered questions, and pledged to continue our assistance as their work continues.”
Cambridge Analytica has attracted considerable attention not just for the data harvesting, but for undercover news investigations that caught executives bragging about scummy campaign tactics, role working on Donald Trump’s campaign, and possibly illegal use of foreign contractors to work on US elections. It has since shut down, though the DOJ and FBI are reportedly still looking into its practices.
According to the New York Times, while the DOJ and FBI investigations into Facebook primarily branch from those ongoing inquiries into Cambridge Analytica, Facebook representatives admitted the SEC one focuses on “the social network’s public statements about Cambridge Analytica.” SEC investigators want to know whether when Facebook said Cambridge Analytica duped them by claiming its project was only harvesting data for academic purposes, it knew full well what was going on. The Times wrote:
... The fine print of a questionnaire that accompanied a quiz app used to collect user data, which was then provided to Cambridge Analytica, said the data could also be used for commercial purposes, according to a copy reviewed by The Times. Selling user data would have been an outright violation of the company’s rules at the time, yet the social network does not appear to have regularly checked to make sure that apps complied with its rules.
The FTC involvement is notable because in March 2018, the agency disclosed that it had learned of “substantial concerns about the privacy practices of Facebook” and launched an investigation as a result. The Post confirmed that said investigation concerns a 2011 consent decree on user privacy that Facebook signed with the FTC—violations of which could potentially result in mind-boggling fines in the billions of dollars, though the agency’s approach to monitoring such breaches of agreements has historically been toothless.
It’s not clear whether the agencies currently are considering whether the investigation could result in “criminal charges or civil penalties” for Facebook or Cambridge Analytica, the Post wrote.
“The fact that the Justice Department, the FBI, the SEC and the FTC are sitting down together does raise serious concerns,” former FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection chief David Vladeck told the Post, adding that the number of agencies involved “does raise all sorts of red flags.”
Former FTC chief technologist Ashkan Soltani told the Times that the growing number of agencies involved in the inquiry is “very significant because it means the government is not just interested in harms to privacy, but is interested in a broad array of harms.”
So this all certainly sounds like bad news for the social media giant. But Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Nate Cardozo told Gizmodo in April that it’s not clear authorities have the appetite to hand down more than token punishments for Facebook’s corporate practices in current climate. While President Donald Trump’s administration has “made it clear that it is no friend of Silicon Valley,” Cardozo said, it has similarly “made it clear that it doesn’t like government regulation and the administrative state.”
Of course, while investigators may determine Facebook’s historical data-sharing policies do not constitute civil or criminal matters, they could always conclude otherwise about anything the site did to cover those issues up.
According to CNBC, Facebook stock dipped slightly after the Post broke news of the multi-agency investigation, though it stood at nearly $195 per share on the real-time tracker Monday night—far higher than its low of around $152 in late March.