Facebook is reeling from a series of revelations about private user data being leaked to Cambridge Analytica, a shadowy political consulting firm that did work for the Donald Trump campaign. Last Friday, reporters from The New York Times and The Observer of London told Facebook that Cambridge had retained copies of private data for about 50 million Facebook users. Facebook says Cambridge promised in 2015 that the data would be deleted. Facebook responded to the new revelations by banning Cambridge and several of its associates from Facebook. But this week the controversy surrounding Facebook’s ties to Cambridge—and its handling of private user data more generally—has mushroomed. British members of Parliament accused Facebook of misleading them about the breach and asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come to the UK to clear up the issue personally. Facebook has scheduled a surprise all-hands meeting to answer employee questions about the controversy.
The scandal has attracted broad public interest because Cambridge did millions of dollars in political consulting work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Some reports have portrayed the firm as the masterminds behind Trump’s election victory—and the stolen Facebook data as a key part of Trump’s digital strategy. But while the firm’s controversial psychographic techniques have attracted a lot of attention, there’s reason to doubt that they were actually used in the 2016 election.
The larger concern for Facebook is that the Cambridge leak could be seen as just one example of a broader pattern of lax handling of confidential user data. Facebook offers users privacy controls that are supposed to limit who has access to their data—and Facebook has promised the Federal Trade Commission that it will ensure those settings are honored.