Facebook Suspends Analytics Firm Over Data Use Concerns

Facebook just suspended Boston-based analytics firm Crimson Hexagon, which has harvested data from its site and Instagram, to investigate whether the company violated Facebook policies. Crimson Hexagon, which says it has one trillion social media posts, had contracts to analyze public Facebook data with the U.S. government and a Russian nonprofit tied to the Kremlin, as well as other clients, say sources. Facebook has “little oversight” over Crimson Hexagon once it harvests the data.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in 2014, Crimson Hexagon worked with Civil Society Development, which used its platform “to study the Russian people’s opinion of the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” and Turkey used it “in its decision in 2014 to briefly shut down Twitter amid public dissent,” according to sources.

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In 2016, Crimson Hexagon was in talks with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but “dropped out of a potential deal because of Twitter’s resistance.”

When Facebook was queried about its oversight of Crimson Hexagon, it said it was not aware of some of the contracts. “Facebook has a responsibility to help protect people’s information, which is one of the reasons why we have tightened” access to user data in many ways in recent years, stated Facebook vice president for product partnerships Ime Archibong, who added that Facebook permits “outside parties” to create “anonymized insights for business purposes.”

Crimson Hexagon chief technology officer Chris Bingham stated earlier this week that it “abides by the policies of its social-media partners and the company doesn’t collect private data,” and will fully cooperate with Facebook to “resolve the issue as quickly as possible.”

Crimson Hexagon “handles large volumes of public user data that the social-media platforms generate daily, including much of the content on Twitter and Instagram and any items on Facebook that users haven’t designated as private.” Public data, adds WSJ, can provide “invaluable information for government agencies in the U.S. and abroad, as well as for political parties working to sway voters.”

Facebook does not sell its data, but “social-media analytics firms like Crimson Hexagon must register as a developer with Facebook and agree to its terms of service before pulling large numbers of posts through a special software portal.” Those terms of service include “Don’t confuse, deceive, defraud, mislead, spam or surprise anyone.”

Crimson Hexagon and others do pay for access to Twitter data, however, meaning the analytics firm “has been able to access more data from Twitter than Facebook,” suggest sources.

The Washington Post reports that, “Facebook said that Boston-based Crimson Hexagon did not do anything inappropriate,” but that its suspension is a “preemptive move,” in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In addition to the Crimson Hexagon activities detailed by WSJ, it added that The Washington Post, in 2016, “reported that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter had shared public data with a startup that helped law enforcement agencies track minority protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.”

That event was what prompted Facebook to prohibit its partners to use data for the purposes of surveillance.

Related:
Understanding the Role of Public Online Data in Society, Crimson Hexagon Blog, 7/20/18