DC attorney general sues Facebook over data privacy

WASHINGTON — The D.C. Attorney General Office is suing Facebook claiming the social media giant failed to safeguard users’ data and improperly shared information with third-party applications, including with a controversial political research firm during the 2016 presidential election.

Attorney General Karl Racine said company’s practices exposed 340,000 District residents — nearly half of D.C.’s population — to potential “manipulation for political purposes.”

The lawsuit comes after an independent investigation conducted by the attorney general’s office, which publicly pinpointed, for the first time, the number of D.C. residents caught up in the data mining scandal that has embroiled Facebook for much of the past year.

The scandal stems from the use of Facebook user data by the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which has been accused of using that data to target voters during President Donald Trump’s winning 2016 presidential campaign. Overall, some 87 million Facebook users are believed to have had their data swept up by the firm.

D.C.’s lawsuit claims Facebook’s “lax oversight and misleading privacy settings” allowed users’ data to be harvested without their permission in violation of D.C.’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act.

“Facebook’s consumers reasonably expect that Facebook will take appropriate steps to maintain and protect their data,” Racine said in a conference call Wednesday with reporters. “Indeed, Facebook tells them as much, promising that it requires apps to respect a Facebook consumer’s privacy. However, Facebook failed to live up to this commitment.”

The Cambridge Analytica controversy stems from a deceptive app produced by a third-party app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” which presented itself as an online personality profile but actually harvested the data of users who downloaded it — along with their friends’ data. Of the more than 300,000 D.C. residents whose data was exposed, just 862 had actually downloaded the app.

The lawsuit seeks a court order that would require Facebook to put in place stronger privacy controls as well as monetary damages for affected users.

The lawsuit claims Facebook misled users about the security of their data, failed to properly monitor how third parties were using customer data and waited more than two years to reveal Cambridge Analytica breach.

The AG’s office announced the lawsuit on the same day a New York Times report revealed Facebook also had secret deals with another of other third-party apps, allowing some companies extensive access to users’ data, including their private messages and the names of their friends.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report. 

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