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Academic Behind Cambridge Analytica Data Mining Sues Facebook For Defamation

The academic who helped Cambridge Analytica vacuum up private information from tens of millions of Facebook profiles sued the social media giant on Friday, arguing that the company defamed him when it claimed he had lied about how the data was going to be used.

Since the full scope of Cambridge Analytica’s data mining was revealed last year, Facebook has repeatedly tried to shift blame for the privacy breach onto the academic, Aleksandr Kogan. Facebook executives — including the chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg — have said Mr. Kogan told Facebook that the data was for academic purposes when it was being collected for use in political campaigns.

Mr. Kogan, 32, a former psychology professor, used a quiz app to collect the data, and has insisted that the fine print accompanying his app said the information could be used commercially. That was an outright violation of Facebook’s rules at the time, but the company does not appear to have regularly checked that apps were complying.

“Alex did not lie, Alex was not a fraud, Alex did not deceive them, this was not a scam,” said Steve Cohen, a lawyer for Mr. Kogan. “Facebook knew exactly what this app was doing, or should have known. Facebook desperately needed a scapegoat, and Alex was their scapegoat.”

Mr. Cohen said Mr. Kogan was not asking for any specific amount of money. “We’re going to leave that to a jury,” he said.

In a statement, Liz Bourgeois, a spokeswoman for Facebook, described the action as a “frivolous lawsuit” from someone who “violated our policies and put people’s data at risk.”

Cambridge Analytica was founded by Robert Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor, and Stephen K. Bannon, who would serve as an adviser to President Trump. The consulting firm rose to prominence in 2016 for its work with the Trump election campaign.

The company claimed it had used Facebook data and other information to develop analytical tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. Those techniques have been widely questioned.

Cambridge hired Mr. Kogan as a contractor in June 2014 — the same month the company was founded — and collected the data throughout the summer by asking Facebook users to take a lengthy personality questionnaire. The quiz harvested data not only from everyone who took it, but also from all their friends.

Facebook, which has since tightened its privacy protections, allowed app developers broad access to its users’ data at the time. Many were unaware their data was exposed, and Facebook was plunged into the worst crisis of its 14-year history after the scope of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting was revealed by The New York Times and The Observer of London.

The company has since said that as many as 87 million users were affected, and it is facing investigations by federal prosecutors and regulators as a result. At least one of those investigations is being run by prosecutors from the Northern District of California, and appears to be partly focused on Facebook’s claims that it was misled by Cambridge.

Federal prosecutors in New York are conducting what appears to be a separate criminal investigation into data deals Facebook struck with some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix. And the Federal Trade Commission, which spent the past year investigating whether Facebook violated its 2011 agreement about data privacy, is now weighing a multibillion-dollar fine against Facebook. That would be the largest such penalty ever imposed by the trade regulator.—New York Times

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