The attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts are demanding that Facebook hand over information regarding the alleged misuse of data culled from millions of users by a third party in an effort to influence the presidential election.
Almost simultaneously, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix — who was filmed by Channel 4 in the UK bragging about how the company could entrap politicians with sex workers — was suspended by the firm's board pending a full investigation.
"In the view of the board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation," the company said in a statement.
The demands from Massachusetts and New York come after recent reports surrounding Facebook's relationship to Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data firm that worked for President Trump's campaign, and which has come under fire for its use of information allegedly gleaned from millions of Facebook users to influence voter opinions.
In a joint letter Tuesday afternoon, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts AG Maura Healey issued a formal series of demands to Facebook.
"Consumers have a right to know how their information is used — and companies like Facebook have a fundamental responsibility to protect their users’ personal information," Schneiderman said in a statement. "Today’s demand letter is the first step in our joint investigation to get to the bottom of what happened. New Yorkers deserve answers, and if any company or individual violated the law, we will hold them accountable."
A source familiar with the investigation told BuzzFeed News that the letter explicitly asks Facebook for information "concerning Facebook’s policies and procedures as they relate to the reported misuse of data by people and/or entities connected to SCL and Cambridge Analytica."
Healey added, "As attorney general, my job is to protect consumers in Massachusetts."
"Companies that control huge amounts of personal data have a legal obligation to guard against theft and misuse of that information," she said in a statement. "We are investigating to find out how and why this data was shared by Facebook and whether the appropriate steps were taken to protect it against misuse and manipulation."
The letter, according to a person familiar with the matter, is a preliminary step in asking for cooperation before more formal action is taken in the form of subpoenas if the parties do not cooperate.
Facebook said Tuesday in a statement that CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and others were "working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue."
"The entire company is outraged we were deceived," the statement, which was emailed to BuzzFeed News, added. "We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people's information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens."
Cambridge Analytica, meanwhile, faces intensifying criticism and scrutiny on multiple fronts, including from Healey, who also announced Monday that she was launching an investigation into the firm.
And on Friday, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica after receiving reports the firm didn't delete data from an app developer, despite saying it had done so, potentially giving it access to massive amounts of user information to allegedly tailor misinformation campaigns.
On Saturday, whistleblower Christopher Wylie said the firm had used that personal data without permission to profile US voters and influence their decisions.
Cambridge Analytica says it uses a method called "psychographic" profiling to understand behavior. In addition to working for the Trump campaign, it also assisted Sen. Ted Cruz and helped develop the messaging for a pro-Brexit group. Nix has boasted that it "profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America — 220 million people."
The company also tested slogans and imagery heavily used by the Trump campaign in 2014, including "drain the swamp" and the idea of building a wall, Wylie has said.
"My ears perked up when I started hearing some of these things like 'drain the swamp' or 'build the wall' or 'deep state,'" Wylie told an audience during a talk in London Tuesday night. "These were all narratives that had come out from the research that we were doing."
The company also has deep ties to Trump-connected figures such as Steve Bannon, who once served on its board of directors, and the Mercer family, which largely owns the firm and who are also some of Trump's biggest donors.
Bannon came up with the name Cambridge Analytica, Wylie said, as "a sort of tip of the hat" to a fake office SCL created to impress the then-chairman of the far-right-leaning Breitbart News.
"We needed to present ourselves as much more academic," Wylie said. "A false reality was infused into the name."
Lawmakers have also been demanding more information. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey said the use of Facebook data may have violated Federal Trade Commission rules and called for both the social network and Cambridge Analytica to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Charlie Warzel is a Senior Technology Writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Missoula, Montana
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Dalrymple is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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