Authorities in the United States and the United Kingdom said on Sunday they would investigate claims that data was harvested from 50 million Facebook users and illicitly passed to a British company that helped Donald Trump to win the 2016 US presidential election.
The social network company suspended Cambridge Analytica following allegations that it received millions of user profiles obtained in breach of privacy rules, to fine-tune its online political advertising in the run-up to election day.
A senior British politician accused both companies of misleading MPs and said that he would ask Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear in person to answer questions about the secret harvesting of users’ data.
The data was obtained by a Cambridge University academic, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who developed an app for research purposes that was downloaded by 270,000 people. Their details were then passed to the data analytics firm in breach of an undertaking, according to a Facebook statement.
A Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, claimed in interviews that they also harvested the data of the unwitting Facebook friends of those who downloaded the app, building a database of more than 50 million people.
"We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles and built models to exploit what they knew about them and target their inner demons," Mr Wylie told the UK's Observer newspaper.
Facebook on Friday also suspended Mr Wylie and Dr Kogan, who works in the department of psychology at Cambridge University and obtained the data through a separate company.
The university said on Sunday that it was aware Dr Kogan had set up the company Global Science Research (GSR) but had no evidence to suggest that he had breached any rules.
“It is not uncommon for Cambridge academics to have business interests, but they must satisfy the University that these are held in a personal capacity and that there are no conflicts of interest,” the university said in a statement.
“Dr Kogan has given us assurances that he kept his academic and commercial work separate.”
Cambridge Analytica – which is not connected to the university - said that it contracted GSR led by a “seemingly reputable academic” for a large-scale research project in the US.
It said that it deleted the data once the problems emerged and signed a statement to confirm it had all been deleted.
“No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign,” it said. Mr Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon was on the company’s board.
Facebook last month told a parliamentary inquiry on fake news that Cambridge Analytica did not have Facebook user data.
But the company said on Friday that in 2015 “we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our platform policies”, in sending it to Cambridge Analytica.
It only went public with the suspensions after The New York Times reported that some of the data was still available online, contrary to assurances made by the company, Mr Wylie and Mr Kogan.
The allegations heap further pressure on Cambridge Analytica which is being investigated over any role it might have had in influencing the 2016 UK's Brexit vote. The company denies it was involved in the "Leave" campaign.
In a letter to the UK Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee last month, Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix denied suggestions that the company “gathers data from users on Facebook”.
Damian Collins, head of the committee, said that Mr Nix had “deliberately misled” his committee and would be called to answer further questions.
Mr Collins also said the committee had repeatedly asked Facebook about whether information had been taken from people without their consent.
"Their answers have consistently understated this risk and have also been misleading to the committee," he said.
"I will be writing to Mark Zuckerberg asking that either he, or another senior executive from the company, appear to give evidence in front of the committee as part our inquiry."
Britain’s data protection regulator also said it was carrying out inquiries into the potential illegal acquisition and use of Facebook data.
The attorney general of the US state of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, announced she would be investigating Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.