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Facebook probing analytics firm with Russian ties

By Sommer Brokaw
Facebook probing analytics firm with Russian ties
Facebook has suspended an analytics firm that uses social media data. File Photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Twin Design

July 21 (UPI) -- Facebook said it is suspending an analytics firm that used social network data to assist the Russian government while it investigates.

The Boston-based Crimson Hexagon has had contracts in recent years to analyze public Facebook data for the U.S. government and a Russian nonprofit tied to the Kremlin among other clients, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter and federal procurement data. Crimson Hexagon boasts that it has a large collection of social media posts, including more than one trillion from sites that also include Twitter and Instagram.

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Facebook is investigating whether Crimson Hexagon violated its platform polices. A similar investigation led to the suspension of Cambridge Analytica, the British data-mining firm accused of inappropriately accessing personal information for millions of Facebook users.

The suspension of Crimson Hexagon is seen as a preemptive move in light of the Cambridge Analytica breach.

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Crimson Hexagon's chief technology officer, Chris Bingham, said in a statement obtained by the Washington Post on Friday, "Crimson Hexagon is fully cooperating with Facebook who has publicly stated its investigation to date has found no wrongdoing."

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The Journal first reported Crimson Hexagon worked with a Russian nonprofit called the Civil Society Development Foundation that had Kremlin ties and used data to study people's opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a 2015 report from the group.

Other governments including Turkey and the United States used Crimson Hexagon's data. Turkey used Crimson Hexagon's service in a decision to briefly suspend Twitter in 2014 over public dissent. The U.S. has paid Crimson Hexagon more than $800,000 for 22 contracts, federal procurement data show. The firm secured a contract worth more than $240,000 with the U.S. State Department in June.

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A State Department spokeswoman said one of its divisions uses Crimson Hexagon "to identify and analyze trends in publicly available social and digital media data."

Bingham said in a statement on the analytics firm's website Friday the company does not collect private data, which distinguishes it from Cambridge Analytica.

"Cambridge Analytica raised alarm surrounding the potential for misuse of private Facebook data, but public data appears to be coming under increased scrutiny as well," Bingham said. "To be abundantly clear: What Cambridge Analytica did was explicitly illegal, while the collection of public data is completely legal and sanctioned by the data providers that Crimson engages with, including Twitter and Facebook, among others."

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