Missouri Attorney General Opens Probe of Facebook Data Usage

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(Bloomberg) -- Missouri’s Republican attorney general is launching a wide-ranging probe into Facebook Inc.’s use of personal data.

In a civil investigative demand dated Monday, Missouri’s Josh Hawley is asking Facebook to disclose every time it’s shared user information with a political campaign or political action committee, how much those campaigns paid Facebook for such data, and whether users were notified. 

The action comes on the heels of revelations about how Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, gained access to the personal data of about 50 million Facebook users. Missouri’s probe is one of a handful of similar actions by state and federal officials. In March, Hawley signed onto a letter from state attorneys general requesting information about Facebook’s policies and practices for protecting consumer data.

“We look forward to responding to Attorney General Hawley’s questions when we receive the details of his request,” said Will Castleberry, vice president for state and local public policy at Facebook.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is slated to testify before Congress in the coming weeks, and has been requested to appear before a parliamentary committee in London and elsewhere in Europe as well.

In his own investigation, Hawley is demanding a timeline of Facebook’s interaction with Cambridge Analytica and Aleksandr Kogan, the academic who collected information through a Facebook quiz and shared it with the firm. 

Zuckerberg said it will take “a few years” to solve the issues plaguing the social media company.

“I wish I could solve all these issues in three months or six months, but I just think the reality is that solving some of these questions is just going to take a longer period of time,” Zuckerberg said in a podcast interview Monday with media publication Vox.

Facebook shares fell 2.6 percent, along with broader market declines, to $155.69 at 3:10 p.m. in New York.

Hawley, 38, who’s running an aggressively partisan Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, is also zeroing in on former President Barack Obama’s use of Facebook data when he ran for re-election in 2012.

Hawley wants to see all communications, documents and evidence about meetings Facebook had with Obama’s campaign. He’s specifically asking for all communications with Carol Davidsen, the campaign’s director of digital integration and media analytics. 

Obama’s use of data during the 2012 campaign was largely seen as innovative and drew little negative attention at the time, but the revelations around Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data has inspired a re-examination. Davidsen recently said on Twitter that Obama’s campaign didn’t break any rules, while acknowledging that some of what it did “felt creepy.”

Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, said the operation was upfront about how it was collecting data, while Cambridge Analytica wasn’t. “Conflating these two cases is misleading,” he said on Twitter. 

Hawley’s investigation will examine whether Facebook was involved in deception, fraud or false promises, in violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, a state-level consumer protection law. It asks for information about how many Facebook users in Missouri were included in the 50 million people that Kogan gathered data on, as well as whether any Social Security numbers, drivers license numbers, or other sensitive data was exposed. The deadline to produce the information is May 29. 

“As the chief law enforcement officer in the state, I will pursue those who mishandle the private information of Missourians,” Hawley said in a statement. 

But Hawley’s penchant for high-profile investigations and lawsuits has opened him up to criticism that he’s acting as much in his capacity as a Senate candidate as a state official. Democrats in Missouri have consistently complained that he’s neglecting the work-a-day aspects of his job to chase national headlines. 

Hawley is also investigating Alphabet Inc.’s Google for privacy and antitrust violations. In his request for information to Facebook, Hawley demands that the company produce any communications between Facebook and Google about data collection through Android applications. 

Any politician investigating Facebook is confronted with the awkwardness of also relying on the social network as a major outlet for political advertising and communications with constituents. Hawley’s Senate campaign uses Facebook advertising, according to a spokesman. It’s not immediately clear whether his own campaign will end up on his requested list of Facebook political clients. Hawley also has a longstanding relationship with Peter Thiel, who is both one of his biggest donors and a member of Facebook’s board.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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