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Mass. judge orders Facebook to turn over info to Maura Healey

Richard Drew/Associated Press

A Massachusetts judge has ordered Facebook to turn over information regarding thousands of apps that the social media behemoth suspects of misusing users’ data to the state’s attorney general office.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Brian A. Davis’s Friday decision spurned arguments from Facebook, which had previously refused to give the information at issue to state investigators.

The judge’s order came almost two years after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a probe into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Facebook has said that personal information of up to 87 million people, most of them Americans, may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm connected to President Trump during the 2016 election.

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Facebook’s technological infrastructure allows third-party developers to create apps that can be utilized by the platform’s users, according to court documents. Davis, in his order, said such apps include games, location-based services, music-playing services, and news feeds.

According to Healey’s office, the case is about protecting state residents from the unauthorized disclosure and potential misuse of data they choose to share with Facebook.

“Consumers have a right to know how their personal information is used,” the Charlestown Democrat said in a statement Friday. “Facebook simply telling its users that their data is safe without the facts to back it up does not work for us.”

As attorney general, Healey has the authority to investigate unfair or deceptive trade practices. In this case, her office seeks, among other things, “to identify other instances of potential misuse and consumer harm, to assess whether Facebook has acted and is acting consistently with its representations to users regarding its policies and practices to safeguard their data on the Platform, and to identify other potential targets for investigation or enforcement action,” according to court documents.

Since announcing its investigation in March 2018, Healey’s office has since issued three civil subpoenas to try to determine the breadth of unauthorized sharing of Facebook users’ data with third parties. Healey wants to know which other app developers may have engaged in conduct like Cambridge Analytica. The office also wanted to establish whether Facebook took steps to protect users against such sharing.

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Davis, in his Friday decision, said it is “sufficient for present purposes to say that Facebook has produced some, but not all, of the information requested by the Attorney General."

Facebook had argued that the information Healey’s office seeks is protected by the work product doctrine or attorney-client privilege, according to Friday’s order. The work product doctrine is intended to “establish a zone of privacy for strategic litigation planning . . . to prevent one party from piggybacking on the adversary’s preparation,” the order said.

The attorney general’s office, in court documents, has called that argument “meritless.”

Facebook, through a spokesman, said that it was “disappointed that the Massachusetts Attorney General and the Court didn’t fully consider our arguments on well-established law, including the work product doctrine.”

“We are reviewing our options, including appeal,” said the spokesman in a statement.

The same month Healey’s office announced its investigation, Facebook launched an internal probe aimed at investigating “all apps that had access to large amounts of information before we changed our platform in 2014 to reduce data access, and we will conduct a full audit of any app with suspicious activity,” according to court documents.

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Friday’s order stated that since announcing that probe, Facebook has given public updates indicating that millions of apps had been investigated, and has suspended tens of thousands of apps and about 400 app developers. But the tech giant has denied Healey’s office some information regarding the findings of its own investigation.

“In particular, Facebook has refused. . . to turn over to the Attorney General certain information generated in the course of its [probe] about the specific apps, group of apps, and app developers that Facebook claims to have flagged as potentially problematic or, at the very least, has identified as worthy of additional examination,” Davis wrote.

He ordered Facebook to give Healey’s office the information within 90 days.

Cambridge Analytica was founded by such conservative power brokers as billionaire Robert Mercer and former White House aide Steve Bannon. Unlike Facebook, which has offices in Cambridge and was born in a Harvard dorm, the firm has no presence in the community located across the river from Boston.

According to Friday’s order, Facebook, as of last June, had more than 1.5 billion daily active user accounts and more than 2.4 billion monthly active user accounts.

A status conference for the case is set for March 31 in Plymouth Superior Court.

Material from The New York Times and Associated Press was used in this account.

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Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.