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Facebook allegedly knew of Cambridge Analytica data mining earlier than reported

Document in court case includes employees' discussion about violating company policies, according to a court filing.

Daniel Leal-olivas / AFP/Getty Images

Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica's mining of its users' data months before the media reported them, according to a recent filing in a court case regarding the data scandal.

The attorney general for Washington DC made that allegation while arguing against a Facebook effort to keep a document in the case under seal. Facebook argues it should be sealed because it contains sensitive commercial information, according to the filing, which was made Monday in DC Superior Court and first spotted by the Guardian.

The document in question is "an email exchange between Facebook employees discussing how Cambridge Analytica (and others) violated Facebook's policies," according to the attorney general's redacted filing. "It also indicates Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica's improper data gathering months before news outlets reported on the issue."

The filing raises questions about when Facebook learned about Cambridge Analytica improperly accessing personal information on up to 87 million Facebook users. That revelation prompted a backlash that raised questions about whether Facebook can be trusted to protect the personal information of its 2 billion users.

The DC attorney general sued Facebook in December, alleging that the company's "lax oversight and misleading privacy settings" allowed the UK political consultancy to gain access to the personal information of Facebook users without their permission. The consultancy obtained the data from a personality quiz app developed by a Cambridge University lecturer named Aleksandr Kogan that was billed as "a research app used by psychologists."

In a prepared testimony delivered to Congress in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: "In 2015, we learned from journalists at The Guardian that Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica."

The court filing states though that "facts in the document show that as early as September 2015, a D.C.-based Facebook employee warned the company that Cambridge Analytica was [a quote that's redacted in the filing] asked other employees to [redacted] and received responses that Cambridge Analytica's data-scraping practices were [redacted] with Facebook's Platform Policy."

The document suggests that at least one Facebook employee was aware of possibly improper activity by Cambridge Analytica months before the Guardian's December 2015 report on the data-gathering practices.

Facebook maintains it wasn't aware of the data transfer to Cambridge Analytica until December 2015.

"These were two different incidents: in September 2015 employees heard speculation that Cambridge Analytica was scraping data, something that is unfortunately common for any internet service," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "In December 2015, we first learned through media reports that Kogan sold data to Cambridge Analytica, and we took action. Those were two different things."

In November, The New York Times reported that Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg "ignored warning signs" of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that saw a political consultancy use data from millions of Facebook users.