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Facebook faces scrutiny for how user data was used to influence elections

British-based research firm Cambridge Analytica has been accused of harvesting data from more than 50 million Facebook users, and misleading the tech giant about it. New undercover video captured the CEO talking about their work for the Trump campaign. Meanwhile, Facebook is facing growing questions and criticism, and officials are set to testify before a House committee. John Yang reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Facebook has been a powerhouse and a corporate giant for years now. Tonight, it's facing criticism and concerns about privacy and security at a whole new level.

    The company is pointing fingers at the political firm Cambridge Analytica for misusing its data. That firm suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix, today.

    But Facebook's own decisions around safeguarding data and other recent scandals are front and center, as the company takes on its own reviews of what went wrong.

    John Yang begins with this report.

  • John Yang:

    Growing questions and criticism swirled around Facebook in the United States and Britain today, as officials questioned how data was used to influence elections.

    The British-based research firm Cambridge Analytica has been accused of harvesting data from more than 50 million Facebook users, starting in 2014, and misleading Facebook about it.

    Through an outside researcher, Cambridge Analytica paid users to take a personality quiz and download an app that collected information from their profiles and their Facebook friends. Then, Cambridge Analytica was hired by the Trump campaign for the 2016 presidential election.

  • Man:

    Have you met Mr. Trump?

  • Alexander Nix:

    Many times.

  • John Yang:

    Today, Britain's Channel 4 News broadcast exclusive secretly filmed video of Alexander Nix, the firm's now-suspended CEO, discussing their work.

  • Alexander Nix:

    We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting. We ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy.

  • John Yang:

    In another video, Nix belittled the House Intelligence Committee members he met with in 2017.

  • Alexander Nix:

    I went to speak to them, and the Republicans asked three questions. Five minutes, done. The Democrats asked two hours of questions.

  • Man:

    And you had to answer everything?

  • Alexander Nix:

    No, it's voluntary. But I did, because I'm trying to help them. We have no secrets. They're politicians. They're not technical. They don't understand how it works. They don't understand that the candidate never — is never involved. He's told what to do by the campaign team.

  • John Yang:

    The furor began over the weekend, after a former Cambridge Analytica employee, Chris Wylie, said the company used the information to influence voters' behavior.

    Yesterday, he spoke with NBC News' "Today" program.

  • Chris Wylie:

    This data was used to create profiling algorithms that would allow us to explore mental vulnerabilities of people, and then map out ways to inject information into different streams or channels of content online, so that people started to see things all over the place that may or may not have been true.

  • John Yang:

    The New York Times reported that, for as long as two years, Facebook failed to inform users whose data had been taken.

    Facebook has pushed back, saying the claim that this is a data breach is completely false. The company said that users chose to share information. It has also hired auditors to make sure the data has been destroyed, as Cambridge Analytica promised.

    In now-deleted tweets, the company's chief security officer, Alex Stamos, admitted a researcher lied about how he would use the data. According to The Times, Stamos plans to leave Facebook later this year.

    The social media giant was already facing pressure over the use of its platform to spread Russian misinformation and fake news during the 2016 election.

    Today, the White House stopped short of calling for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress.

  • Raj Shah:

    Without knowing the specifics, it's difficult to talk about whether an individual should testify, but we do support the privacy of American citizens.

  • John Yang:

    But some, including Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, took a more aggressive stance.

  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.:

    Privacy is clearly at risk in America, and Mark Zuckerberg ought to be before the Judiciary Committee in public, under oath, to explain how 50 million Americans and others were put at risk and still have no notice of who they are, so that they can better secure themselves.

  • John Yang:

    This afternoon, the House Energy and Commerce Committee said it will hear from Facebook representatives tomorrow. And the Federal Trade Commission is reportedly opening an investigation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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