PROTECTING THE DIGITAL YOU: FACEBOOK AND CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA
An Article by Polina Hristova Journalist at ROCCO
All it took was a cunning analysis of the Facebook API,an envious dose of ambition, a speck of genius.
This is how the researcher Alesandr Kogan, a Russian-American who worked at the University of Cambridge, obtained an academic license to use Facebook’s databy creating an app called thisisyourdigitallifeunder the pretense of studying people’s behaviour online. It sounds like your typical social media cliché quiz and indeed, that’s exactly what it was; he knew the hundreds of employees paid to fill out ridiculous quizzes online would also fill this one. For “academic purposes”. What he accomplished next happened without Facebook’s immediate knowledge: he proceeded to obtain the data of 50 million Facebook accounts, harvested not only from the participants of the quiz, but also from their friends. And then he sold it to Cambridge Analytica whose parent group is SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories), described as a “global election management agency”. SCL would mostly concentrate their efforts into spreading propaganda, also known as ‘psyops’, the final goal being the “change of audience behaviour” to tip the scale in their client’s favour.
The company has worked for other candidates previously – like Ted Cruz– and its main purpose is to identify the most gullible voters. Voters in 17 states were polled daily, and the avalanche of strategical advertisements and social media provocations helped increase donations which fuelled Trump’s campaign.
WHAT DID EXACTLY CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA DO?
Christopher Wylie claims that Kogan sold all this data for chiclets– so now you know how much your personal data is worth.
Microtargeting of content has been around for years. Identifying every single potential voter, influencing them further through ads and messages and spreading misinformation has become the standard Republican information warfare. And that’s exactly what Cambridge Analytica specializes in.
These Facebook quizzes are of the many ways to harvest data for targeted ads – it’s not exactly news, although the shock among the public was immense. Marketers have been using this methodsince Facebook Ads launched; it is hardly a surprise. It’s an almost frivolous statement carelessly wedged between other manipulative tactics in your typical marketing bachelor’s degree. There’s no such thing as free lunch… the most banal expressions in economics takes full force in this case: once you sign up for Facebook, you become the product.
Cambridge Analytica – a British political consulting firm – landed in the spotlight after its own executives boastedabout using ‘honey traps’ and possessing a significant influence in various international political elections (including referendums, like Brexit) to an undercover reporter for Channel 4 News. Observers had long suspected the firm of shady tactics, thus the investigation, but once all the dirty laundry resurfaced, it became clear that Robert Mercer – the main investor in Cambridge Analytica and a right-wing donor– had higher aspirations, especially since he basically funded Trump’s campaign. Trump’s former aide – Stephen K. Bannon– was also a board member. Cambridge Analytica worked on Trump’s campaign only in the last five months of its duration, openly patting themselves on the back for his victory.
Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, said the company had been set up “to address the vacuum in the US Republican political market” that became evident when Mitt Romney was defeated in the 2012 presidential election. They saw an opportunity in the way democrats dominated the ‘tech revolution’ and decided to fill in the gap.
Big data mining, data brokerage and data analysis are topics mostly addressed in articles of praise and futuristic optimism – but what about manipulation and theft? Many have been severely gaslighted to ignore the vulnerabilities, but therefore cases like Cambride Analytica and Facebook happen – to explore the immense lack of modern legislation regarding user data.
Thing is, this whole ordeal happened in 2014, and yet it remained unsolved until Christopher Wylie dropped the bombof the ultimate propaganda scheme in 2018. These campaigns sustained on data mined from psychological and personality profiles extracted from Facebook’s users.
“People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked,” Facebook said.
Facebook denies that there was a data breach – it had granted Kogan the permission to access the information. However, by selling it to Cambridge Analytica, he has broken the terms of service. The app was removed and Facebook demanded the data to be destroyed.
“I already had. But literally all I had to do was tick a box and sign it and send it back, and that was it,” says Wylie. “Facebook made zero effort to get the data back.”
WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW?
Facebook only came to know of this data breach in 2015 and Wylie specifically accused Facebook of caring little about their users’ data, due to their seemingly unpreoccupied attitude. It never emailed him again to check whether the data was truly disposed of.
“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’.”
And then Facebook tried to play the victim once the story emerged. Both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have denied to Congress that this even happened, which ultimately lead to further questioning and investigation.
But can one truly feel sorry for Zuckerberg? He must have known about the loopholes, the intricate details hidden within the Terms and Conditions that severely overlooked the points of exploitation that were obviously spotted by the Cambridge Analytica specialists… like Christopher Wyliewho targeted the political victims with specific ads designed after their psychological makeup.
The largest shareholder of Cambridge Analytica is Putin’s business partner – Dmitry Firtash – who is currently awaiting sentence on his corruption and racketeering practices. You can imagine the unfolding conundrum following this discovery.
Most Facebook apps steal its users’ data, though. You can sign up for a developer’s account rather easily and read the agreement, agree to certain Terms and Conditions that Facebook never upholds unless your story goes viral, and then you can collect personal data of hundreds of people.
“The people whose job is to protect the user always are fighting an uphill battle against the people whose job is to make money for the company,”
Sandy Parakilas, who worked on the privacy side at Facebook, told the New York Times.
The CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, has since been suspended, while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called to Congress to present evidence.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF?
- Disable ads completely – use an ad blocker.
- Do not trust every app that requires your Facebook login information. The list of permissions is long, and you don’t want to give up your entire history to just any app.
- Check your Facebook account’s security settings. Read carefully and configure the permissions individually to avoid any regrets later. Do not give them access to your friends’ accounts.
- You can also download a copy of the data Facebook has accumulated on you over the years. Go to General Account Settings tab and you’ll see it, in case you’re curious to see what exactly Facebook has gathered on you.