The agency is investigating whether Facebook violated an agreement on data privacy, a person with knowledge of the inquiry said. The scrutiny of the company now extends from state capitals to Europe.
The Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation into whether Facebook violated an agreement with the agency on data privacy, after reports that information on 50 million users was improperly obtained by the political-consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, according to a person with knowledge of the inquiry.
The investigation, started in recent days, adds to the mounting pressure against Facebook about its handling of the data. Cambridge Analytica used the information to help President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign profile voters during the 2016 election.
The scrutiny of the company now extends from state capitals to Europe. Attorneys general in Massachusetts and New York are investigating Facebook’s handling of personal data, and the British Parliament has called for a hearing with Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive. Several senators have also called for him to appear in Washington, D.C.
Adding to concerns about the company is the impending departure of Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer. That change, reported Monday by The New York Times, reflects heightened leadership tension at the company.
The buildup of news has already hurt Facebook’s stock, which is down about 9 percent from Friday.
The FTC investigation is connected to a settlement the agency reached with Facebook in 2011. The agency had accused the company of deceiving customers “by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public,” according to a statement at the time.
Among several violations, the FTC found that Facebook told users that third-party apps on the social-media site, like games, would not be allowed to access data. But the apps, the agency found, were able to obtain almost all personal information about a user.
The data on the 50 million users was harvested in 2014 by an outside researcher, Alexander Kogan. Kogan, a professor at Cambridge University, paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which collected private information from their profiles and from those of their friends. Facebook allowed that sort of data collection at the time.
Then, as The Times reported over the weekend, Kogan gave the information to Cambridge Analytica, a firm founded by Stephen Bannon, the former White House political adviser, and Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor. Passing the information to a third party violated Facebook’s policies, the company said last week.
“We are aware of the issues that have been raised but cannot comment on whether we are investigating,” an FTC spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday. “We take any allegations of violations of our consent decrees very seriously.”
The investigation was reported by Bloomberg earlier Tuesday.
Facebook said it expected to receive questions from the FTC related to potential violations of its 2011 consent decree.
“We remain strongly committed to protecting people’s information. We appreciate the opportunity to answer questions the FTC may have,” Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman, said in a statement.
The agency’s action against Facebook in 2011 was considered a landmark in privacy enforcement. The company could face fines of $40,000 a day per violation if the agency finds it violated their settlement.
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Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La., have asked the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to hold a hearing on Facebook’s links to Cambridge Analytica. Republican leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee, organized by John Thune of South Dakota, wrote a letter Monday to Zuckerberg demanding answers to questions about how the data was collected and if users were able to control the misuse of data by third parties.
There have been growing calls for the top leadership at Facebook to appear before U.S. and British lawmakers to testify about the social-media giant’s sharing of data with Cambridge Analytica.
“It’s time for Mr. Zuckerberg and the other CEOs to testify before Congress. The American people deserve answers about social-media manipulation in the 2016 election,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Tuesday.
Facebook staff members are scheduled to brief his office and others in the Senate Intelligence, Commerce and other committees this week.
“The possibility that Facebook has either not been transparent with consumers or has not been able to verify that third-party app developers are transparent with consumers is troubling,” Thune said in his letter.