The social media giant has admitted that Cambridge Analytica — a political advisory that ran Trump’s digital outreach — used an app to collect the private details of 87 million users without their knowledge.
It then strategically targeted them with political ads and produced detailed polls that allegedly helped Trump score an upset victory over Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton, which spawned a web of investigations.
Cambridge Analytica pleaded guilty on Wednesday of failing to comply with a UK media regulator’s order to release the information it had on a US professor who demanded to know what the company knew about him — and how.
It was fined £15,000 ($19,100, 16,700 euros) and required to pay around £6,000 in court costs.
Wednesday’s hearing in a tiny courtroom in the residential outskirts of London was a test case that provided a glimpse into a scandal that has rocked Facebook’s reputation and provided more work for US Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
An attorney representing the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) media regulator told the court that Cambridge Analytica managed to gather what amounted to 81 billion printed pages of data about Facebook users.
Investigations by The Guardian and The New York Times published a year ago prompted the ICO to seize Cambridge Analytica’s computers and servers as part of their own probe in March 2017.
The firm has since gone into administration.
But Wednesday’s hearing showed that Cambridge Analytica is still putting up a fight.
An ICO attorney said the London-based company had initially informed the US professor who made the request for his personal data, David Carroll: “You have no right to make (a data access request) — any more than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of Afghanistan”.
One of its executives later told the ICO that he did “not expect to be further harassed with this sort of correspondence”.
The company’s guilty plea was also carefully crafted.
Cambridge Analytica admitted to a “failure to comply with (an ICO) enforcement notice”.
But the plea notes that “this prosecution does not relate to nor suggest misuse of data or any potential action relating thereto”.
– ‘Not done yet’ –
Professor Carroll told AFP that he felt only partially vindicated by the verdict.
“It’s another step in the way. We are not done yet,” he said in a telephone interview from New York.
“The quest is complete when I get all my data.”
Presiding judge Kenneth Grant agreed to look into the specifics of Carroll’s data request — but not the wider issue of Cambridge Analytica releasing all the information it had.
Carroll said the biggest revelation from Wednesday’s hearing was that the ICO had obtained the passwords to Cambridge Analytica’s servers that the company had initially tried not to disclose.
He said this could lead to the eventual release of the data as well as a more thorough review of digital privacy rules in both Britain and the United States.
“I think the story is not over,” the US professor said.