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Facebook “Investigates” Analytics Firm Crimson Hexagon

Update: August 16, 2018.  Crimson Hexagon says:  “After several weeks of constructive discussion and information exchange with Facebook, Crimson Hexagon is very pleased to report that Facebook and Instagram reinstated Crimson Hexagon and their entire customer base will now be able to once again access those data sources on our platform.”

Still smarting from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and with its “Here Together” campaign dogged by Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence that “together” includes holocaust deniers and Infowars, Facebook yesterday returned to bashing the data wranglers who scrape public data from its platform. It announced the suspension of Boston-based consumer insights company Crimson Hexagon while investigating potential misuse of data.

Back in March. Facebook sent a shock wave through the data collection world when it ceased partnering with companies like Acxiom and Experian to merge their third party data collections with its own data for ad targeting purposes. For Acxiom, Facebook was scapegoating third party providers to distract from its own problems. “We are getting thrown under the bus,” said CEO Scott Howe.

Whether concerns about Crimson Hexagon have substance remains to be seen. At the core of the firm’s business is its API-based capability to crawl a wide range of social media platforms, siphon data, analyse it (including sentiment analysis), and store it for future use. Some one trillion data items are stored in its AWS infrastructure. That’s a lot of data, but it has always been understood to be public data; in other words, content which users publish to the world (whether or not through a misunderstanding of privacy settings). It’s that API connection which has just been turned off.

Crimson Hexagon, which has also been developing capabilities for analysing the image-based content which now forms so important a part of the social world, makes data sets available to brands and advertisers, as well as government agencies and nonprofits. Among its clients, the Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago, was a nonprofit “tied to the Kremlin,” which was engaged in evaluating public perceptions of Vladmir Putin. There are currently no allegations of wrongdoing by the Russian agency.

While it’s true that Facebook introduced a policy in 2017 banning developers from using even public data for “surveillance” purposes, the meaning of “surveillance” remains unclear, especially since data can be provided to government agencies for market research purposes. Market research historians will recall that the discipline has its roots in a 1930s organization called Mass Observation; research and surveillance are barely distinguishable twins.

Chris Bingham, CTO of Crimson Hexagon, sought to explain precisely the kinds of data the company does and doesn’t crawl:

Public online data is data that anyone can access, including, for example, any tweets from a public Twitter account, public posts or comments on forums, or publicly distributed news articles or blog posts. All of this public data is collected by Crimson Hexagon so that users of our platform can analyze it to understand large-scale consumer trends and preferences.  

What is NOT considered public online data? Social media posts published by private accounts and profile information from private social media accounts. This is private online data that Crimson Hexagon has never collected, and has no ability to collect.

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. 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.

If brands can rely on Crimson Hexagon’s tools to monitor consumer perceptions of breakfast cereal, chocolate bars, airlines, or sports franchises, it’s not immediately clear why they shouldn’t use them to evaluate the popularity of President Putin, President Trump, or the New York Yankees. After all, the only thing which differentiates what Crimson Hexagon is doing from what a news clippings service used to do it volume and velocity. 

We’re waiting to learn, then, whether Crimson Hexagon is guilty of any as-yet-unexplained wrongdoing, or whether this is just an unfortunate collision between Facebook’s perpetually obscure policy decisions and the dreaded R-word. In a statement sent to DMN, Bingham said: ” Crimson Hexagon is fully cooperating with Facebook and working together to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.”

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