Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook Data Breach

Nearly 50 million Facebook users had their data unknowingly harvested to help Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

What’s happened?

Christopher Wylie, 28-year-old data analyst and co-founder of Cambridge Analytica, has revealed that the company acquired Facebook data of around 50 million users without their consent in the run-up to Trump’s election campaign. The data – which included status updates, ‘likes’ and even private messages Wylie claims – allowed them to create detailed profiles of users and target them with content designed to alter their voting intention.

By measuring personality traits such as “agreeableness”, “extraversion” and “neuroticism”, they could discern the type of content users would respond to. 

Armed with startlingly nuanced profiles of 50 million Americans, Cambridge Analytica were able to operate as a “propaganda machine” Mr Wylie says. They used their team of photographers, videographers and designers to create content adhering to this analysis and would then “inject” it, at exactly the right moment to exactly the right people, to change their voting intention.

Mr Wylie described the operation as like “whispering into the ear of each and every voter”.

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How did they do it?

Dr Kogan, a Cambridge University academic, circulated a personal questionnaire on Facebook back in 2015. If a user agreed to fill out the questionnaire, Kogan then had access to their data, but also – and this is the key part – he gained access to the data of most of their friend’s too.

Dr Kogan claimed his questionnaire was a “very standard vanilla Facebook App” that would pay users a small fee to take a personality quiz and download an app. He transferred the data harvested from this technique to Cambridge Analytica.

Mr Wylie says that he has “a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately”.

Did people have their data taken unknowingly?

Absolutely. The Guardian reports that “under British data protection laws, it’s illegal for personal data to be sold to a third party without consent”. In this case, it wasn’t sold, as Kogan handed it over to Cambridge Analytica free of charge, but he did so without the knowledge of many millions of people.

Of the 50 million or so users who had their data harvested “almost none” were aware of it or consented to it, Wylie revealed.

“Facebook could see it was happening,” says Wylie. “Their security protocols were triggered because Kogan’s apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So they were like, ‘Fine’.”

Does Facebook protect your data?

Facebook’s privacy settings change a lot and can be difficult for users to keep track of. Back when the data was harvested in 2015, millions of user’s privacy settings were set to allow this type of harvesting.

In a statement, Facebook has said that these users “gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.”

Why Facebook would ever give other users the power to consent the use of friend’s data on their behalf, and without notifying them when it is collected, is unclear. They only contacted Wylie two years after the data breach to say that Dr Kogan’s sending of the data to them was illicit and illegal and that they should delete it immediately.

Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, on Centre Stage during day three of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo – Sam Barnes

Who’s saying what?

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee
These guys are one of the select committees in the British House of Commons. They have sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, who lives at 1 Hacker Way, California, asking him to appear before them in London and give “oral evidence” on the matter.

Downing Street
Number 10 is “very concerned” over the alleged data breach. A spokesperson for Mrs May has said, “The allegations are clearly very concerning, it’s essential people can have confidence that their personal data can be protected and used in an appropriate way”. They have also confirmed that the information commissioner, is investigating the issue.

Paul Mason
In the Independent media organisation Novara Media, Paul Mason suggests that Facebook should perhaps come under public ownership. “I am not kidding” he writes. “I don’t want to kick Facebook while it’s down. Instead what we need to do is start a mature conversation between the tech companies, the states that regulate them and the populations who those states are supposed to be serving”

Carole Cadwalladr
In The Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr tells of how “Facebook was hijacked, repurposed to become a theatre of war: how it became a launchpad for what seems to be an extraordinary attack on the US’s democratic process”.

Malcolm Nance
Malcolm Nance from MSNBC says that “Cambridge Analytica itself, Alexander Nix [the company’s CEO] have been marketing to other countries that they did this for the Trump campaign, so the truth’s going to come out at some point”

“Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules. Both Aleksandr Kogan as well as the SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica certified to us that they destroyed the data in question”. Controversially, Mark Zuckerberg is yet to comment. The Facebook accounts of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie and Alexander Nix have been suspended.

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