Facebook has uncovered internal emails that hint at CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s was aware of some of the problematic privacy practices for which the company is currently under scrutiny, Wall Street Journal reported (paywall). The emails were uncovered as Facebook is currently providing information to the US Federal Trade Commission, as part of its investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The FTC is investigating the scandal and social media company for possible violation of the 2012 consent decree, in which Facebook “agreed to better protect user privacy”. Anonymous sources told the newspaper that Zuckerberg raised the potential issues with “thisisyourdigitallife” – the personality quiz app at the center of the Cambridge Analytica scandal – in an email with colleagues, and was thus aware of the privacy issues. The publication, however, said that it had no knowledge of the content of unearthed emails and how many of them were related to Zuckerberg. CNN reported yesterday, that following the development, Facebook “disputed” the WSJ report.

In 2013, Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at Cambridge University, created an app named “thisisyourdigitallife” that promised to predict aspects of users’ personalities. Around 270,000 people downloaded the app and signed in using their Facebook accounts, giving Kogan access to information about their city of residence, Facebook content they had liked, and information about their friends. It was later found that as many as 87 million Facebook profiles were harvested for Cambridge Analytica, a UK based consulting firm.

The following timeline will explain why this WSJ report can potentially change the way the FTC has been looking at the entire Cambridge Analytica scandal and change the entire course of investigations into the matter:

A timeline of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Zuckerberg’s remarks on the developments

  • 2010: Facebook launches a platform for third-party apps called ‘Open Graphs’ which allowed developers to request access to users’ personal data, and more importantly, their friend’s data too. (This is exactly why despite 270,000 signing up for Kogan’s app, more than 87 million people were affected).
  • 2012:Facebook signs a consent decree with USFTC with the company promising that it will not share users’ data with third-party apps or others, without their consent.
  • 2013: Cambridge Analytica is founded, and Kogan starts developing his app.
  • 2014: Facebook changes its privacy rules limiting developers’ access to user data. In retrospect, the rules weren’t imposed properly, and Kogan still had access to data acquired by his app.
  • 2015: Guardian reported that US President candidate Ted Cruz was getting a helping hand by Cambridge Analytica. In response, Facebook sought to ban Kogan’s app and directed the consulting firm to delete user data.
  • 2016: Presidential candidate Trump and his campaign directors invest heavily in Facebook ads, using the data that Cambridge Analytica had.
  • 17 March, 2018: Expose! Guardian reports that Cambridge Analytica harvested data of more than 50 million Facebook users citing whitsleblower Christopher Wylie. The number was later found out to be 87 million. Wylie categorically told Guardian that this data was used to run a pro-Trump campaign.
  • 20 March, 2018: Following the explosive expose, the FTC launches an enquiry into the matter to see if Facebook violated their 2011 contract. Zuckerberg was urged to testify infront of Congress.
  • 21 March, 2018: Zuckerberg breaks silence via a blog post. He wrote, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” (This hints at the fact that he had no knowledge of the matter)
  • 10 April, 2018: Zuckerberg testifies infront of Congress. During his prepared testimony, Zuckerberg says, “Over the past few weeks, we’ve been working to understand exactly what happened with Cambridge Analytica and taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” This lasted for two days. See our coverage of Day 1 and Day 2.

Zuckerberg has categorically maintained the fact throughout the course of the scandal that Facebook had no knowledge of the use of Facebook users’ data by the consulting firm. But, if the WSJ report turns out to be true, that could change how we’ve looked at the narrative all along.