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A U.S. senator worries that Mail.ru might be the next ‘Cambridge Analytica scandal’

Meduza
The front entrance to Mail.ru’s office in Moscow
The front entrance to Mail.ru’s office in Moscow
Evgeny Biyatov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Until 2015, several applications developed for Facebook by third-party companies had access to personal information shared by users and their friends. The apps could see names, genders, birth dates, places of birth, photos, and “liked” posts and pages. One of the businesses that collaborated with Facebook like this was the Russian company Mail.ru.

In May 2015, Facebook prohibited third-party applications from collecting information about users’ friends, but 61 companies — including Mail.ru — enjoyed continued access to this data for a limited time. Facebook acknowledged this in a new report submitted to the U.S. Senate, as part of an investigation launched after revelations that the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica acquired and used personal data about millions of Facebook users.

Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN that Mail.ru “potentially had hundreds of apps integrated with Facebook, collecting user data.” Arguing that Mail.ru’s “executives boast close ties to Vladimir Putin,” Senator Warner says U.S. officials “need to determine what user information was shared with Mail.ru and what may have been done with the captured data.”

In January 2018, Washington added Alisher Usmanov (one of Mail.ru’s top shareholders) to its so-called “Kremlin list” — a list of the 210 top Russian business people, state officials, and lawmakers suspected of close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Facebook told CNN that only two apps developed by Mail.ru were granted an extension (of just two weeks) that would have allowed them to collect “friend data” beyond the cut-off date announced in May 2015.

Ime Archibong, Facebook's vice president of partnerships, told CNN that the company hasn’t found any evidence that Mail.ru misused Facebook user data, though it’s unclear how Facebook could know what Mail.ru did with the data after acquiring it.

Mail.ru says it developed about 20 games for Facebook, insisting that it always followed the network’s terms and conditions. The company says it didn’t collect data about Facebook users (including Americans) to promote its “social games with social mechanics.” American users apparently make up just five percent of Mail.ru's Facebook audience, a representative told CNN.

Speaking to the newspaper Kommersant, however, Mail.ru said that it used the user data it collected only for commercial purposes, to promote its products within Facebook. “We’re prepared to undergo a technical audit on this issue, which are American partners are demanding,” the company’s press office told Kommersant.

Story by Olga Karelina, translation by Kevin Rothrock