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Facebook Suspends Data-Analytics Firm Crimson Hexagon to Probe Potential Policy Violations

UPDATED: Facebook, still dealing with fallout from the scandal over user data improperly obtained by consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, has suspended another data-analytics firm over possible policy violations.

Facebook said it has temporarily suspended the firm, Crimson Hexagon, while it looks into whether it violated data-sharing policies. Facebook was responding to an inquiry from the Wall Street Journal, which reported that Crimson Hexagon had deals to analyze Facebook data for clients including several U.S. governmental agencies and a Russian organization with Kremlin ties.

Facebook said that based on its investigation so far, Crimson Hexagon did not obtain any Facebook or Instagram information inappropriately. Facebook said the analytics company is cooperating with the probe.

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

In a blog post Friday, Crimson Hexagon CTO Chris Bingham said the company’s governmental customers are allowed to use its platform only for specific approved use cases and that “under no circumstances is surveillance a permitted use case.”

“Government entities that leverage the Crimson Hexagon platform do so for the same reasons as many of our other non-government customers: a broad-based and aggregate understanding of the public’s perception, preferences and sentiment about matters of concern to them,” he wrote.

In addition, Bingham wrote, Crimson Hexagon collects only publicly available social-media data “that anyone can access,” not private data. He noted that the Facebook data accessed by Cambridge Analytica was private.

“What Cambridge Analytica did was explicitly illegal, while the collection of public data is completely legal and sanctioned by the data providers that Crimson engages with, including Twitter and Facebook, among others,” according to Bingham.

Boston-based Crimson Hexagon claims it maintains a database of over 1 trillion social-media posts, including from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and other discussion forums, blogs, and other sources. The company boasts that it has the world’s largest volume of unstructured text and images across social, online public, and enterprise-held data sources.

Per Facebook’s policies, users can opt to share their information with developers on Facebook and Instagram. In addition, the social-media company offers application programming interfaces to let developers use public or aggregated information for business purposes.

“Facebook has a responsibility to help protect people’s information which is one of the reasons why we have tightened our APIs significantly over the last few years,” Ime Archibong, Facebook’s VP of product partnerships, said in a statement.

According to Crimson Hexagon’s website, customers include Paramount Pictures, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Adidas, General Mills, General Motors and Twitter. The company was founded in 2007 by chairman Gary King, a professor at Harvard University and director of the university’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Investors in Crimson Hexagon include Great Oaks Venture Capital and Sageview Capital.

The situation with Crimson Hexagon comes after revelations about info on up to 87 million Facebook users may have been improperly sold via a third-party researcher with Cambridge Analytica, a firm that worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to target Facebook users.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica flap, Facebook said it suspended 200 third-party apps that had access to large amounts of user info pending review of whether they misused that data. Facebook claims it changed its policies in 2014 to prevent apps from accessing info on users’ friends in the way that led to the harvesting of data that wound up on Cambridge Analytica’s servers.

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