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What is Cambridge Analytica and why is everyone talking about the Facebook data scandal?

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Dave Fawbert
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Facebook hit the news for the wrong reasons again this weekend following a series of new revelations laid out in the Guardian relating to a huge data breach which saw fully 50 million users who had their profiles harvested for use by a mysterious company called Cambridge Analytica, a company linked to both the ‘Leave’ vote in the 2016 EU Referendum and Donald Trump’s march to victory in the presidential elections the same year.

It follows hot on the heels of the huge criticism Facebook has attracted for enabling the spread of fake news on its platform; criticism which has already led to an algorithmic shake-up by founder Mark Zuckerberg, drastically reducing the amount of news served up on people’s feeds.

But, for those who haven’t the time or inclination to wade through a series of relatively technical articles, what is the actual story here, why does it matter and, crucially, should you be worried?

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Let’s waste no time: this is the story.

What exactly has happened?

In early 2014, Cambridge Analytica, a company that “combines data mining and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process”, gained access, without authorisation, to 50 million Facebook profiles of US citizens.

How did they do this?

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, which was built by the academic Aleksandr Kogan, who worked at Cambridge University as a lecturer in psychology and psychometrics. The app was, however, a separate endeavour away from his academic work, and was made for his company Global Science Research (GSR). Hundreds of thousands of people were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.

However, the app also gained access to the profiles of friends of the test-takers, creating an enormous data pool 50 million-strong. According to The Observer, each person who took the test, “unwittingly gave access to at least 160 other people’s profiles, none of whom would have known or had reason to suspect”.

This activity, conducted by GSR, was funded by Cambridge Analytica to the tune of $1 million.

What did they do with this data?

It is believed that the information was used by Cambridge Analytica “to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements”.

In the words of Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who worked with Kogan to obtain the data, and who has come forward to reveal his role in the affair: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

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What is Cambridge Analytica?

The company has been under scrutiny for around a year, with German investigative journalists Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus looking at the role ‘Big Data’ had to play in Trump’s successful election campaign and the ‘Leave’ campaign in the EU Referendum. They found that Cambridge Analytica had a crucial and, essentially, hidden role.

We wrote in May 2017 that the company:

“Compiled a vast array of demographic data, legally collected via Facebook itself, together with things like credit reference information, supermarket club card data and land registry information, and combined them with data on personality traits, to create ‘the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected’.

“This enabled them to utilise ‘microtargeting’ on Facebook, whereby they knew exactly the sort of people to target, and exactly how to target them with a barrage of specific messages to influence them to vote ‘Leave’ or to vote for Trump – or, in many cases for the latter campaign, to depress the Democrat vote. Trump’s constantly contradictory messaging ended up being a huge bonus for them – they could simply pick whichever argument, or to use a more emotive term, propaganda, might appeal most to a particular voter and ram it home repeatedly on Facebook. There was an incredible claim that ‘Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions’.

Note that, back then, we wrote ‘legally collected’ - it now turns out that this was not the case.

As the Observer puts it:

“Cambridge Analytica spent nearly $1 million on data collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behaviour.

“The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool. It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft messages more likely to resonate.”

Cambridge Analytica is owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager who supports many politically conservative causes. Its former vice president was Steve Bannon - an alt right figurehead who helped mastermind Trump’s run for office. Its current CEO is Alexander Nix.

Steve Bannon, who served as White House Chief Strategist in the first seven months of the Trump administration before a spectacular falling-out

Was this ‘data harvesting’ actually illegal?

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Facebook allows the collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app - but bars it being sold on, or being used for advertising. In addition, under British data protection laws, it’s illegal for personal data to be sold to a third party without consent.

So summarise it all for me?

According to a whistleblower, a company concerned with winning the election for Trump, and the referendum vote for ‘Leave’, harvested 50 million Facebook profiles without permission, enabling it to ruthlessly target voters in order to target them with adverts that would play to their psychological weaknesses in order to get them to vote the way they wanted them to.

What has Facebook done about it?

According to documents seen by the Observer, provided by Wylie, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, the company knew by late 2015 what had happened. However, it did not alert users, and took limited steps to recover the information. The Guardian reported on it back in December 2015 - at the time, Cambridge Analytica was working on Ted Cruz’s campaign.

However, it took seven months after this article was published for Facebook to do anything - and even then, all they did was write a letter to Wylie, who had left the company in 2014, telling him that it must be deleted immediately.

He told The Observer:

“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. Facebook made zero effort to get the data back.”

What have Facebook and Cambridge Analytica said to authorities?

In February, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix told British MPs on a select committee inquiry into fake news, chaired by Conservative MP Damian Collins: “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.” He also denied that GSR had provided the company with information or data. Both of these statements now appear to be false.

At the same inquiry, Facebook’s UK director of policy, Simon Milner, denied that Cambridge Analytica held any Facebook data.

When asked if this was the case, he replied: “No. They may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.”

In the wake of the allegations, Collins has now attacked Facebook, and said that they appear to have been “deliberately avoiding answering straight questions” in testimony to the committee.

He has said: “It is now clear that data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent, and was then processed by a third party and used to support their campaigns. Facebook knew about this, and the involvement of Cambridge Analytica with it.”

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Collins has said that he intends to recall Nix to ‘explain his comments’ and will also call on Mark Zuckerberg himself to testify.

Cambridge Analytica already refuted the claims before Collins made his comments, tweeting:

Are there any other dubious connections?

Well, surprise surprise, there’s a link back to Russia. Aleksandr Kogan - who set up GSR - is, unbeknown to his Cambridge University colleagues, an associate professor at St Petersburg State University and received grants from the Russian government to research Facebook users’ emotional states.

In addition, in 2014, Cambridge Analytica made a pitch to Lukoil, Russia’s second-biggest oil producer. Its CEO, Alekperov, answers to Putin. While they did not end up working for them, documents shown to the Observer demonstrate that, “in 2014 one of Russia’s biggest companies was fully briefed on: Facebook, microtargeting, data, election disruption.”

Any final thoughts?

It demonstrates once again the huge power of the data that Facebook, a private company effectively controlled by one man, holds. With a presidential run by Zuckerberg far from out of the question, it’s a reminder of what a terrifying prospect that could be.

UPDATE: Since this was first published, new footage has emerged of further dubious activities at Cambridge Analytica, with its executives filmed by Channel 4 News suggesting they could use honey traps, and potentially bribery, to discredit politicians.

Now the UK’s Information Commissioner is to apply to court for a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s offices.

(Images: Getty/Rex)