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San Francisco: The attorney general of the District of Columbia, Karl Racine, sued Facebook on Wednesday for allowing the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest the private data of tens of millions of the social network’s users.

It was a first step by a state attorney general to punish Facebook for privacy violations. “Facebook failed to protect the privacy of its users and deceived them about who had access to their data and how it was used,” Racine said in a statement.

Will Castleberry, Facebook’s vice president of state and local public policy, said: “We’re reviewing the complaint and look forward to continuing our discussions with attorneys general in D.C. and elsewhere.”

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The Times and other news organisations reported in March that Cambridge Analytica, which was based in London, had improperly obtained the data of as many as 87 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica, which had ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign, used the information to build psychographic profiles of American voters.

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The reports prompted concerns among lawmakers and regulators in Europe and the United States about whether Facebook had a proper handle on the data of its more than 2.2 billion users worldwide. The revelations have spawned months of crisis for the Silicon Valley company, on top of other issues that the social network has faced, such as how it was manipulated by Russians to interfere in elections. Facebook’s top executives, including its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, have vowed to improve the site.

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Even so, it will likely take many more months to resolve the fallout from Cambridge Analytica. In some places, regulators and lawmakers have moved swiftly. In Britain, Facebook was hit in July with the maximum possible fine of £500,000, or about $660,000 (Dh2.42 million), for the improper harvesting of its users’ data.

At the time, the Information Commissioner’s Office in Britain said that its inquiry had determined that “Facebook contravened the law by failing to safeguard people’s information. It also found that the company failed to be transparent about how people’s data was harvested by others.”

Investigations broaden

In the United States, legal and regulatory action has been slower. Earlier this year, the Justice Department and the FBI began investigating Cambridge Analytica, which is now defunct. In July, Facebook said it faced an expansion of federal investigations into its sharing of user data with Cambridge Analytica.

Several state attorney general offices have also announced investigations into Facebook because of Cambridge Analytica. In the lawsuit brought by Racine on Wednesday, he said the Facebook data of roughly half of the District of Columbia’s residents had been exposed by Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting. Racine also said the social media company misled people about the security of their data, and made it difficult to control privacy settings on the platform.

A new report by The Times on Tuesday, which laid out how Facebook had struck special data-sharing agreements with companies including Netflix and Spotify, may lead investigators to broaden the scope of their investigations.

In New York, where the state attorney general has been looking into Facebook, Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the office, said the revelations by The Times reflect “the many unanswered questions to which New Yorkers deserve clear answers.”

An investigation by Barbara Underwood, the New York attorney general “into the apparent misuse of Facebook user data is ongoing,” she added.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and his wife Priscilla Chan Image Credit: Agency

Racine also said the new report deserved scrutiny. In a statement, his office said the district would seek an injunction forcing Facebook to implement protocols that would safeguard people’s privacy, along with “seeking restitution for the consumers who have been hurt.”

Racine’s office has also conferred with other state attorneys general who are investigating Facebook. In a news conference, Racine said they could file a multistate lawsuit against the company.