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Facebook Suspends Harvard Prof’s Data Analytics Company Over User Privacy Concerns

Facebook CEO and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the University's 2017 commencement.

Facebook suspended Crimson Hexagon — a data analytics company founded by University professor Gary King— last week, claiming the group may have violated Facebook policies in its analysis of site data for the U.S. government and for a Russian nonprofit linked to the Kremlin.

During the suspension, Facebook will investigate how Crimson Hexagon collects, shares, and stores user data. The suspension and investigation were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Crimson Hexagon, located in Boston, pulls and analyzes public Facebook data for third-party clients. Russian non-profit Civil Society Development Foundation paid the company to study Russians’ opinions of the regime of Vladimir Putin — and, last month, Crimson Hexagon forged a contract with the U.S. State Department for more than $240,000, the Journal reported.

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Facebook did not approve the government contracts in advance and does not do much to monitor what the company does with user data, according to the Journal.

Ime Archibong, the vice president of product partnerships at Facebook, announced her company’s investigation of Crimson Hexagon in a statement Friday.

“Facebook has a responsibility to help protect people's information,” Archibong wrote.

Facebook spokesman Jay Nancarrow wrote in an email that, as of July 27, the investigation had not unearthed evidence that Crimson Hexagon obtained Facebook or Instagram data “inappropriately.” Nancarrow added that developers are not allowed to build surveillance tools using Facebook and Instagram information.

Crimson Hexagon’s chief technology officer Chris Bingham wrote in a blog post Friday that the company only collects publicly available social media data. Bingham wrote in a statement that Crimson Hexagon is working with Facebook “to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.”

King, the director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard and chairman of Crimson Hexagon, founded the company in 2007 with Harvard Business School graduate Candace Fleming. King, who did not respond to requests for comment, told the Journal that “he has never been involved in the firm’s day-to-day operations.”

The suspension comes as King is separately working with Facebook to conduct a research project meant to help determine the platform’s impact on elections and democracies. That project, dubbed Social Science One, will grant a team of academic researchers unprecedented access to Facebook’s anonymized user data. King is pursuing the project solely in his capacity as an academic and Social Science One has no affiliation with Crimson Hexagon.

The Crimson Hexagon inquiry is one of myriad ongoing investigations into third-party apps that use Facebook data. Earlier this year, Facebook CEO and Harvard dropout Mark E. Zuckerberg testified for hours before Congress following revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm connected to President Donald Trump’s campaign, used the data of roughly 87 million Facebook users without their explicit permission.

The swirling concerns over user privacy may be taking their toll on the social media giant once touted as invincible. Facebook shares fell 19 percent Thursday, the largest one-day dip the company has ever faced. The drop came after the company reported poor second-quarter earnings in part due to increased spending on privacy and security.

—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at lucy.wang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22.

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