Facebook suspends analytics firm amid concerns of widespread surveillance of users

Boston-based company has collected more than a trillion public social media posts - and has contracts with various government agencies

Saturday 21 July 2018 23:56 BST
The company Crimson Hexagon has been suspended by Facebook and Instagram
The company Crimson Hexagon has been suspended by Facebook and Instagram (Getty)

Facebook has suspended an analytics firm amid apparent concerns it may have carried out wide-spread surveillance of users.

The social media giant said it had launched an immediate investigation after questions were raised about how Crimson Hexagon was using data collected from the site.

The firm, based in Boston, describes itself as offering “consumer insights” and claims to have collected more than a trillion public social media posts from sources including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr.

It uses an app and artificial intelligence to provide its customers – which include government agencies and major multi-national corporations such as Samsung – with insights into public sentiment about specific issues. The BBC has also been a customer.

But the company had its access to Facebook and Instagram shut off on Friday when it emerged it may have violated the platform’s surveillance policies.

It came after The Wall Street Journal queried Crimson Hexagon’s contracts with the US government, as well as a Russian not-for-profit enterprise with ties to the Kremlin, and Turkish government agencies.

“We don’t allow developers to build surveillance tools using information from Facebook or Instagram,” a Facebook spokesman said. “We take these allegations seriously, and we have suspended these apps while we investigate.”

But he added: “Based on our investigation to date, Crimson Hexagon did not obtain any… information inappropriately.”

He said representatives from the two companies would be meeting in the coming days.

Facebook banned developers from using public user data for surveillance in March 2017 following revelations police departments were using social media monitoring companies to track protesters. But it did not reveal what it meant by surveillance at the time and has not clarified since.

As such, it remains unclear exactly how Crimson Hexagon may have broken its rules.

In a blog entry posted by the firm following the suspension, its chief technology officer appeared to defend the firm’s work without specifically mentioning the investigation.

Crimson Hexagon only collects publicly available social media data that anyone can access,” Chris Bingham wrote. "The real conversation is not about a particular social media analytics provider, or even a particular social network like Facebook. It is about the broader role and use of public online data in the modern world.”

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