DC Attorney General Sues Meta Chief Executive for Cambridge Analytica Data Breach
WASHINGTON — Washington, D.C.’s attorney general is suing Meta Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg over his alleged backing of the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal suspected of influencing the 2016 presidential election.
Cambridge Analytica, a former British political consulting firm, used data it took from Facebook without its users’ consent to compile demographic information that could have helped Donald Trump get elected.
The lawsuit filed this week says Zuckerberg should be personally responsible after he knew someone could take the data but did nothing to stop it.
“In other words, Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook platform — in a way that Facebook and Zuckerberg encouraged — to influence and manipulate the outcome of a United States presidential election,” the lawsuit says.
Meta Platforms, Inc., doing business as Meta, is the parent company of social media giant Facebook. With a value over $1 trillion, Meta is one of the world’s most valuable companies.
In March 2018, multiple media organizations reported that Cambridge Analytica acquired personal data on as many as 87 million Facebook users from a researcher who falsely told Facebook officials he needed the information for academic research.
Shortly afterward, a British television station broadcast undercover videos of Cambridge Analytica Chief Executive Alexander Nix bragging about using prostitutes and bribery to discredit politicians on whom it collected information for their political opponents. Nix also said his company “ran all of (Donald Trump’s) digital campaigns.”
Cambridge Analytica acquired the personal data through what appeared to be a harmless app called “This Is Your Digital Life.” Although only about 270,000 Facebook users signed up for the app, the terms of service gave access to the users’ much broader network of friends.
The app developer turned over the psychometric profiling data to Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook responded by banning Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform, saying it had been deceived.
The Federal Trade Commission filed an administrative complaint against the political consulting firm, which is now insolvent. It also ordered Facebook to pay a $5 billion fine.
A subsequent investigation showed Cambridge Analytica contractors gave sensitive U.S. polling and election data to Russian intelligence agents at a time they were accused of using social media to sway the election in Trump’s favor.
Zuckerberg’s claims that Cambridge Analytica slipped through Facebook’s privacy and security net were unconvincing to District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine.
Racine’s lawsuit filed this week in District Court of Columbia Superior Court says, “What is most troubling is that Facebook looked into Cambridge Analytica and determined that it posed a risk to consumer data but chose to bury those concerns rather than stop them, as that could have hurt Facebook’s (and Zuckerberg’s) bottom line.”
Rather than blaming Meta as a company, Racine directs the blame mostly at Zuckerberg.
He controls nearly 60% of Facebook’s voting shares and appoints the majority board members, the lawsuit says. Zuckerberg also oversees development of Facebook’s products.
The lawsuit invokes authority under the District of Columbia’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which is designed to protect consumers against unfair and deceptive business practices. It seeks restitution, fines and legal expenses.
Racine claims Cambridge Analytica intruded upon the personal data of about 340,000 Washington, D.C., residents.
The lawsuit says that “the District brings this case to ensure that Mark Zuckerberg is held accountable for his role in Facebook violating the District’s consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the protection of user data and their blatant disregard and misuse of sensitive, personal data belonging to District residents.”
Zuckerberg and Meta have so far declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The latest lawsuit is part of a series of legal problems for Meta in recent years. Governments around the world are using regulations and antitrust lawsuits to crack down on the social media giant.
This is the second time the D.C. attorney general pursued Zuckerberg with legal action.
In March, a Washington, D.C., judge dismissed a motion by the attorney general to name Zuckerberg as a defendant in a privacy lawsuit based on the Cambridge Analytica data leak. The judge said the attorney general waited too long to try to hold Zuckerberg personally liable.
The case is Karl A. Racine v. Mark Zuckerberg, number 2022 CA 002273 B, in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
Tom can be reached at t[email protected] or on Twitter at @tramstack.
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