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D.C. Attorney General Sues Facebook Over Data Misuse in 2016 Election

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WASHINGTON — Washington, D.C.’s attorney general filed suit against Facebook on Wednesday over a third party app’s sale of users’ personal data to Cambridge Analytica, which used the information to target voters during the 2016 presidential election.

The lawsuit, filed in D.C. Superior Court, claims that Facebook failed to protect the privacy of its users and then “deceived them about who had access to their data and how it was used,” said Karl A. Racine, the attorney general for the District of Columbia.

“Facebook put users at risk of manipulation by allowing companies like Cambridge Analytica and other third-party applications to collect personal data without users’ permission,” Racine said.

The suit claims that Facebook allowed a third party app to “harvest” the personal information of millions of users and then sell it to Cambridge Analytica, which used it to identify the personality profile of potential voters. That information was used by the Trump campaign to target voters.

“Today’s lawsuit is about making Facebook live up to its promise to protect its users’ privacy.” Racine said in a statement.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind filed by a government official, comes just as the New York Times reported that Facebook gave companies like Netflix, Microsoft, and Spotify more access to user data than previously disclosed. Netflix and Spotify were given the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages, the Times reported.

The D.C. lawsuit claims that Facebook “permitted select partner companies” special access to consumer data as apps were developed, and those companies “were allowed to override Facebook consumers’ privacy settings and access their information without their knowledge or consent.”

The latest revelations and litigation will likely only provide more fuel for Congress to pass piracy legislation, something that has garnered support in both parties amid consumer concerns.

According to the lawsuit, in 2013 Facebook allowed researcher Aleksandr Kogan to launch an app called “thisisyourdigitallife.”

The app, the lawsuit states, was a personality quiz and a way to entice users to grant access to their personal data. Some 852 Facebook users in D.C. installed the app.But it also was used to  also collect information on those users’ friends — or more than 340,000 D.C. residents who did not download the application. The information was then sold to Cambridge Analytica, a breach of Facebook’s terms of service. According to the lawsuit, data from about 70 million Facebook users in the U.S. was harvested.

“This sequence of events was replete with failures in oversight and enforcement,” according to the suit. “For instance, as remains its policy to this day, Facebook failed to take the basic step of reviewing the terms of Kogan’s application, which would have alerted the company to the fact that Kogan planned to improperly sell consumer data.”

The lawsuit claims that Facebook violated the D.C. Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Among other things, Facebook made it difficult for users to control their data settings for their apps, and that the social media giant failed to disclose that Cambridge Analytica obtained users’ data until 2018 even though it became aware of it in 2015, according to the suit. Facebook failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that the data sold to Cambridge Analytica was accounted for and deleted, the litigation claims.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction make sure that Facebook puts in place adequate safeguards and it seeks unspecified restitution and damages.

A Facebook spokesperson said, “We’re reviewing the complaint and look forward to continuing our discussions with attorneys general in D.C. and elsewhere.”