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Peter Thiel's Curious Ties to Cambridge Analytica Scandal Raise Eyebrows

Peter Thiel

Tuesday's questioning of Mark Zuckerberg by nearly half the Senate was, for the most part, more embarrassing to the senators than to Zuckerberg, who managed to get through it relatively unscathed.

For example, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked, "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?" Zuckerberg replied, "Senator, we run ads."

Another senator bragged that he had one of the first business cards with his Facebook name on it, while others asked elementary questions about how Facebook worked—answers that they could have gotten from a simple Google search. It was not the Senate’s finest hour.

Some of the best questions came from Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who probed about Facebook’s lack of competition and how competition can be good for an industry. He asked Zuckerberg if he thought Facebook was a monopoly. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg replied sheepishly.

Senator Richard Durbin (R-Ill.) asked Zuckerberg, "Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?" Zuckerberg laughed and said, "No," making it clear that there are two standards of privacy: one for Zuckerberg and another for Facebook users.

But a third senator, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), asked Zuckerberg one of the most interesting questions about a secret data mining company, Palantir, and the role it may have played in the stealing of Facebook’s personal data by Cambridge Analytica.

"Do you think Palantir ever scraped data from Facebook?" she asked.

Zuckerberg seemed startled and denied knowing anything about that.  She then asked him, "Do you know who Palantir is?" Zuckerberg quietly said that he did.

While Zuckerberg claimed to have no knowledge of Palantir's involvement with the Facebook data breach, Cantwell may have been referring to the reported cooperation between Palantir and Cambridge Analytica, the company that Facebook has banned.

According to a recent report in the New York Times:

As a start-up called Cambridge Analytica sought to harvest the Facebook data of tens of millions of Americans in summer 2014, the company received help from at least one employee at Palantir Technologies, a top Silicon Valley contractor to American spy agencies and the Pentagon.

It was a Palantir employee in London, working closely with the data scientists building Cambridge’s psychological profiling technology, who suggested the scientists create their own app — a mobile-phone-based personality quiz — to gain access to Facebook users’ friend networks, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

Cambridge ultimately took a similar approach. By early summer, the company found a university researcher to harvest data using a personality questionnaire and Facebook app. The researcher scraped private data from over 50 million Facebook users — and Cambridge Analytica went into business selling so-called psychometric profiles of American voters, setting itself on a collision course with regulators and lawmakers in the United States and Britain.