SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook said Friday it suspended a longtime partner that had used data from Facebook and other social networks to assist governments — including Russia, Turkey, and the United States — in monitoring public sentiment, a more cautious approach in the aftermath of a data privacy scandal.
Facebook said that Boston-based Crimson Hexagon did not do anything inappropriate but that it is curtailing the company’s access to its data while conducting an investigation.
The preemptive move represents a shift for Facebook after the controversy over the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which Facebook said inappropriately collected the private profiles of more than 80 million Facebook users. The social network is under investigation by three federal agencies over its links with Cambridge Analytica, and, since the crisis erupted, Facebook has suspended more than 200 apps that had access to its data.
Crimson Hexagon, which primarily used public, aggregated data from people who made their profiles available for anyone to see, is the largest of this new wave of suspensions.
Crimson Hexagon’s chief technology officer, Chris Bingham, said in a statement Friday, “Crimson Hexagon is fully cooperating with Facebook who has publicly stated its investigation to date has found no wrongdoing.”
The revelations were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. The Journal cited documents stating Crimson Hexagon worked with a Russian nonprofit entity, the Civil Society Development Foundation, that had Kremlin ties and used the data to study the Russian people’s opinion of President Vladimir Putin’s government. The company also used Twitter’s data feed, called a “Firehose,” to assist in a decision to shut down Twitter during pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Facebook has stirred controversy before over whether its data was used to monitor people for undemocratic purposes. In 2016, The Washington Post reported that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter had shared public data with a start-up that helped law enforcement agencies track minority protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. Shortly after, Facebook changed its policies to prohibit its partners from using any data for “surveillance.”
“We don’t allow developers to build surveillance tools using information from Facebook or Instagram,” Facebook said in a statement Friday. “We take these allegations seriously, and have suspended these apps while we investigate.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Twitter and Facebook both offer public data for what is known as “sentiment analysis” or “social listening.” The tech companies aggregate people’s posts, comments, likes, locations, general demographic and other information into anonymous data feeds that many start-ups purchase to analyze and sell to clients including corporations, brands and governments. Privacy advocates have raised concerns that sometimes data can be linked to individuals, particularly when it is being used to monitor sentiment in real time during events such as concerts or protests.