Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg started off the year with a promise to fix Facebook's multiple issues. But it looks like this is easier said than done. No sooner is Facebook coming to terms with one issue, there is another one waiting at the door to creep on to the collective conscience of its users. And this has been happening so regularly of late, that one has been left numb to an extent.
The most recent of the thorns in Facebook's crown is courtesy the alleged misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica. Last Friday, Facebook suspended Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) and its political data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica after it emerged that it was using data shared by a developer who was supposed to use it only for his own app.
According to Facebook, "In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe. He also passed that data to Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc."
While one may have thought that this was pro-active action by Facebook — despite it being three years too late — it was only on the following day that the reason behind the suspension of SCL became amply clear. Turns out news media organisations such as The Guardian and New York Times had a story which would blow the lid of the data analytics firm methods and this could have had a hand in assisting with Donald Trump's victory, by manipulating voter behaviour.
So let's see how this latest controversy has played out so far.
What's Cambridge Analytica and why is it in the news?
Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a UK-based data analytics firm with its parent company named Strategic Communications Laboratories. The purpose of CA is to come up with online political campaigns, reach out to potential voters online and it does this by combining data from multiple sources including online information.
It is also the firm that worked for Donald Trump's presidential campaign as well as with the Leave EU camp during Brexit. One of its co-founders and data analysts at Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie shared evidence about the company having harvested data from close to 50 million users on Facebook. This was done without the express permission of the said users. CA then used this information to create a psychological profile of the users as well as their friends based on their online activities. This was then used for targetted political advertising during UK's Brexit referendum as well as during the 2016 US presidential elections.
CA is said to have got this private data from Cambridge researcher Alexsandr Kogan, who created an app called 'thisisyourdigitallife' to offer personality predictions online. Now, Facebook lets app developers seek permissions from users to use their personal data to help develop the app. In this particular case, Kogan's app offered users a personality prediction after they agreed to take a personality test. Around 270,000 people downloaded the app. They gave their consent to Kogan to access their public information as well as limited information about their friends. Now while Kogan got access to this data, it was only meant to be used by him for developing his app. Instead, Kogan went ahead and sold this data to CA, which then used it to tweak their social strategies for the Trump election campaigns.
To give an idea, say if you had downloaded this app and taken the personality quiz, Kogan's app was able to determine your race, gender, sexual orientation, which political party you were most likely to vote for, and even predicting your vulnerability to substance abuse. That is quite specific information and something that most of us don't publicly share. Yet, this is the kind of deductions Kogan's app was able to make after you downloaded the app and answered a few queries.
CA also got funding from US billionaire Robert Mercer, who is also a major investor in alt-right website Breitbart News. And Steve Bannon, who served as a chief strategist in the first seven months of Trump administration and a founding member of Breitbart News was also the advisor to CA for a while.
Who is Christopher Wylie and what are his allegations?
Christopher Wylie is the co-founder and former research lead at Cambridge Analytica, who blew the whistle on CA's unethical activities. Speaking to The Guardian, Wylie said that the company exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles and used that to build models to target these same people.
— Christopher Wylie (@chrisinsilico) March 18, 2018
According to Wylie, Facebook suspended his account for his act of blowing the whistle on something that Facebook knew privately for about two years.
Explaining the process to Channel 4 News, Wylie said that Kogan's app paid thousands of users (a lot of them hired by CA using Amazon's Mechanical Turks platform) a small amount of money to take an online personality quiz after they downloaded the app. While downloading the app users gave consent for Kogan's app to use their personal data, location and some publicly available data of your friends as well (this feature of accessing friends' data was discontinued in 2015). Then using the source code from the responses Kogan's app got, it was fed into an algorithm which would create a user psychological profile of the user. On an average, for every user survey, Kogan's app captured records of up to 300 Facebook users.
"I just need to engage 70,000 to 100,000 people to get a really big data set, really quickly. This method scaled very quickly and we were able to get upwards of 50 million plus Facebook records within a span of a couple of months," said Wylie saying that almost none of those 50 million users were aware that their data was being used.
Wylie spoke about how the Trump campaign used the data to create sort of culture war. "Steve (Bannon) wanted weapons for his culture war and we offered him a way to accomplish what he wanted to do, which was to change the culture of America," said Wylie.
What are Cambridge Analytica's responses?
CA responded to Facebook's suspension order by stating that it does not hold data from Facebook profiles. CA acknowledged that it had contracted a company, Global Science Research (GSR) (which was founded by Kogan), for a large-scale research project. According to CA, GSR was only to obtain data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act and after seeking user consent.
"GSR obtained Facebook data via an API provided by Facebook. When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, Cambridge Analytica deleted all data received from GSR. No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign," says CA.
What's Facebook's response?
According to Facebook, there is no data breach as the users who had downloaded the app made by Kogan, did so of their own accord.
"People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked," said Facebook. On the topic of the data of friends also being compromised, Facebook's 'platform policy' allows only the collection of friends' data to improve the in-app user experience and this data is not meant to be sold outside. For now, Facebook has suspended the accounts of Cambridge Analytica, Dr Alexsandr Kogan and Christopher Wylie, till further investigations.
In what can be construed as a self-goal, Facebook even threatened The Guardian with a legal notice against publishing the report, calling it 'false and defamatory' allegations.
Facebook's arguments denying the 'data breach' have a similar tone of the UIDAI denying any issues with Aadhaar security despite the many data vulnerabilities.
How is it related to the Trump election campaign?
CA was hired by the Trump campaign to help with data crunching during the 2016 election season. Steve Bannon, then chairman of Breitbart News, who eventually became an advisor to Trump, was also said to be the vice president of CA's board. CA guided Trump's campaign team on how best to target voters using ads or speeches or making the strategic campaign stops. While this may look like any other service persuading voters to vote for their party, according to Wiley what CA did was manipulating voters into voting for Trump.
Who is Facebook answerable to now?
Facebook is already facing the music in the US with regards to the involvement of Russian entities in gaming Facebook's ad platform. This revelation can only make things worse for Facebook. Even though Facebook says that there isn't a data breach, because users who downloaded Kogan's app did so of their own volition, the friends of these users who may not have interacted with the app had to let go of their data unknowingly.
Britain's information commissioner is investigating whether Facebook data was "illegally acquired and used," after it suspended CA. In the US, several Republican lawmakers have expressed serious concerns over privacy violations after this story broke out.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake said he had a lot of questions about the data taken from Facebook, including who knew it had been taken and whether it is still being used.
“This is a big deal when you have that amount of data, and the privacy violations there are significant,” he told CNN’s State of the Union program. “So the question is who knew it and when did they know it, how long did this go on and what happens to that data now.”
Facebook faced new calls for regulation from Democratic senators on 17 March and was hit with questions about personal data safeguards, but it was unclear whether the Republican-controlled Congress would act.
Cambridge Analytica eyeing India
According to a report in Hindustan Times, the UK-based firm has its eyes on South-Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as they approach elections. The report states that CA and its India partner Oveleno Business Intelligence (OBI) have reached out to Congress and BJP for a possible collaboration for the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
According to OBI CEO, Amrish Tyagi, the company is in talks with CA which has denied the allegations and is looking at legal measures. "We are partners. If something is established to be in violation of Indian law, then we will, of course, reconsider it," said Tyagi. So far according to Tyagi, CA has no projects in India so there is no question of them having done any social media work here.
What happens now?
We can rest assured that this matter will be in the news cycle for quite a while. The extent of the data breach is still not fully known. Whether Facebook and Cambridge Analytica will take the legal route is something that only time will tell. As for your personal data, as is evident from Wylie's confession, even if you may not have downloaded and used the 'thisisyourdigitallife' app, if you were friends with someone who had and hadn't really set your privacy settings, then your personal data is most surely part of the sweep.
As it is, Facebook and a lot of social media websites have been facing the music from governments especially in the US, the UK as well as the EU. This data breach will only strengthen the voices of critics who are asking for more regulation of social media.
As for Wylie, he could be sued by CA or Bannon for breaking any confidentiality agreements they may have had.
We will find out more in the coming days.