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EU Parliament faces data probe a year after chiding Facebook

(Bloomberg) --A year ago, the European Parliament attacked Facebook Inc. in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Now it’s embroiled in a privacy scandal of its own after using U.S. software company NationBuilder to process political data concerning more than 300,000 people.

The EU assembly, which comprises members from across the 28-nation bloc, is being probed for using a U.S.-based political campaigning company to process personal data relating to its elections in May, according to the EU’s in-house privacy watchdog.

“The EU parliamentary elections came in the wake of a series of electoral controversies, both within the EU member states and abroad, which centered on the threat posed by online manipulation,” Wojciech Wiewiorowski, who earlier this week was chosen as the next European Data Protection Supervisor, said in a statement on Thursday. It has led to “a good level of cooperation developing between the EDPS and the European Parliament.”

Election campaigns continue to attract a lot of scrutiny. Earlier this month, the U.K.’s top privacy watchdog sent letters to the nation’s parties, warning them about the use of people’s data in their political campaigns ahead of the general election in December. Shortly before the European elections, the parliament adopted rules to prevent and penalize European political parties that deliberately misuse personal data in election campaigns.

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The EDPS said that the parliament had been using the website, thistimeimvoting.eu, which ended up collecting data from more than 329,000 people interested in the election campaign activities. The data was then processed for the parliament by NationBuilder, a U.S. technology company that develops software for political campaigns.

The European Parliament said it decided to use NationBuilder in 2018 as a pilot project to run an information campaign across the EU, and only “used the basic functionalities,” such as the content management system, or a tool to send information in an emailed statement.

It “never used the features that allows to cross date with external third parties” and “no data was ever shared with other systems and people can only sign up if they give their explicit consent,” the parliament said in an emailed statement.

NationBuilder said in an emailed statement that its software helps people take part in the democratic process and that it does “not share or sell our customers’ data.”

“As the European Parliament has explained, they used NationBuilder’s software for customer relationship management to motivate democratic participation among EU citizens in the 2019 European Parliament elections,” it said. “We are incredibly proud to have helped power that effort.”

The probe has led to two reprimands against the EU assembly, which the institution complied with.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last year left members of the parliament fuming over unanswered questions at the end of a hearing that began with a mea culpa for the company’s privacy woes.

The revelations that the data of as many as 87 million Facebook users and their friends may have been misused by Cambridge Analytica has been called a game changer in the world of data protection as regulators seek to raise awareness about how to secure information.

Bloomberg News