Facebook funds Cambridge Analytica investigation amid undercover expose [Updated]

Facebook will pay for a forensic audit of Cambridge Analytica's systems over alleged misuse of social networking data, amid a new report that claims executives at the data company used shady business practices. Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica maintains that it is innocent of the allegations, and insists that it complied completely with Facebook's initial request that the contentious data be deleted.

Facebook is paying for Stroz Friedberg, a digital forensics firm, to investigate the servers and systems of Cambridge Analytica, the social network announced today. "This is part of a comprehensive internal and external review that we are conducting to determine the accuracy of the claims that the Facebook data in question still exists," the company said. The data was passed to Cambridge Analytica by a researcher who had gathered it with from Facebook users taking part in a "psychological test" and who, inadvertently, granted access to their Facebook friends' data in the process.

In total, several hundred thousand people apparently participated in the test. However, because of the way the Facebook API worked, data of approximately 50m users was then extracted from the site. That was then provided to Cambridge Analytica.

The audit news comes as British broadcaster Channel 4 released a controversial investigation into Cambridge Analytica, including undercover video of men from the firm's senior executive team. Filmed between late 2017 and early 2018, the footage shows an undercover reporter meeting with representatives from the data firm. They apparently suggest ways that supposed Sri Lankan politicians could be elected, including bribery and entrapment.

Cambridge Analytica, meanwhile, "strongly denies" the allegations from the past few days. In a statement today, about not only the Channel 4 documentary but the newspaper reports, it argues that the supposed revelations are the handiwork of a former contractor misrepresenting himself to the media. The company also insists that it deleted all the contentious Facebook data as soon as it was made aware that it had been shared contrary to the policies of the social network's research APIs.

"In 2014 we received Facebook data and derivatives of Facebook data from another company, GSR, that we engaged in good faith to legally supply data for research," Cambridge Analytica says. "After it subsequently became known that GSR had broken its contract with Cambridge Analytica because it had not adhered to data protection regulation, Cambridge Analytica deleted all the Facebook data and derivatives, in cooperation with Facebook."

Moreover, it maintains that the data was not used in its political campaigning during the 2016 US presidential election. "This Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign; personality targeted advertising was not carried out for this client either," it says. "The company has made this clear since 2016."

As a result of the controversy, Facebook now finds itself facing questions by US lawmakers as to how it handles data privacy. In a letter today from Democratic senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, the social network has been challenged to explain how it handles disclosures to users, numerate how many such incidents have happened in the past decade, and explain why it took until now for Facebook to bar Cambridge Analytica altogether from its service.

Update: You can watch the whole Channel 4 Cambridge Analytica segment in the video below: