Facebook suspends data firm claiming access to 1 trillion conversations

Facebook may have another Cambridge Analytica on its hands, and the company is taking an unusually proactive step to contain what could potentially be another large privacy scandal. On Friday, July 20, the social network said it is suspending Boston-based Crimson Hexagon, a data analytics firm that claims to have more than 1 trillion consumer conversations aggregated from social media, forums, blogs, reviews, and other online sources. Crimson Hexagon counts government agencies from the United States, Turkey, and Russia among its clients with the purpose of helping organizations monitor public sentiment.

While Facebook found no wrongdoing by Crimson Hexagon, the company’s access to data from Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram was temporarily shut down pending further investigation. “Facebook Inc. said Friday it was suspending an analytics firm while it investigates whether that firm’s government contracts violate the social-media giant’s policies on how its public data is collected and shared,” The Wall Street Journal reported. Unlike the now-defunct political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which collected private profile data from more than 87 million Facebook users, Crimson Hexagon claims it merely pulls readily available information from public profiles. Even though Facebook has found no evidence of improper data collection, the company is investigating Crimson Hexagon’s policies on how data is collected, stored, and shared.

“We don’t allow developers to build surveillance tools using information from Facebook or Instagram,” Facebook said in a statement. “We take these allegations seriously, and we have suspended these apps while we investigate.”

For its part, Crimson Hexagon chief technology officer Chris Bingham said that it is fully cooperating with the investigation. In a blog post, Bingham said that Crimson Hexagon “routinely vets all potential government customers that inquire about the platform and will decline potential customers with use cases that would violate policies of our data partners, like Twitter. Each government customer must contractually commit, in writing, to the detailed use cases that they will be pursuing on the platform.” Moreover, Bingham claims that no private data is collected as part of the company’s practice and that the collected data could only be used for specifically approved purposes. The company denies that it is helping with any government surveillance program.

This is not the first time that Facebook has been embroiled in controversy surrounding surveillance. In 2016, Facebook, along with Instagram and Twitter, shared public data with a startup that helped law enforcement monitor and track protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, The Washington Post reported. After those incidents, Facebook revised its policy to prohibit partners from using data on its network for surveillance purposes. And following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has been under investigation in the U.S., U.K., and European Union, forcing the company to take a more consumer-friendly approach to privacy.

In addition to its government clients, other customers of Crimson Hexagon’s data analytics include Paramount Pictures, Adidas, General Motors, Twitter, and General Mills. The company was founded by Harvard University professor Gary King.

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