Cambridge Analytica ruled headlines this week for its alleged harvest of millions of Facebook profiles, reportedly used illegally during and for the United States election of 2016. In recent developments, the company has been suspended from Facebook, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of woes for Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
What if we told you that a third-party with access to your Facebook activity could create a character profile of yours?
What is Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a private company that gives data analytics and research services to clients. A critical political pivot, companies like CA, are secretly and sometimes openly used extensively for election campaigns across the world. They collect voter data from publically available information sources to develop campaign strategies and demographic profiles.
CA was founded in 2013, supported by Steve Bannon (former White House Chief Strategist) and Robert Mercer. The company has allegedly been part of the US election campaigns since 2014.
What did they do?
Cambridge University lecturer, Aleksandr Kogan, in association with CA built an app called thisisyourdigitallife. He used this app through his own firm Global Science Research (GSR) with CA's support to get voluntary information from hundreds of thousands of users through a personality quiz. These users were paid and told that their information would be used for academic purposes. This is where things get murky.
The app also collected Facebook data for friends of these volunteers, which according to Facebook was to be used to improve 'app experience' and was not to be sold or used for advertising.
The social media giant admitted that an estimated 270,000 people had downloaded the app and shared their personal information with it.
The data collected was, therefore, finally from millions of American Facebook users, all of whom were friends of the first volunteer group. This data then, according to a CA whistle-blower account to the Observer, was used in 2014 for a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.
Chris Wylie, former Research Director at Cambridge Analytica, (pictured on the right) has given accounts of what went on behind the scenes to get all this information.
"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", the whistle-blower told Observer.
CA, therefore, harvested millions of profiles off of Facebook to create targeted political influence for the elections.
Why should you be worried?
Remember the whistle-blower’s account? He says "..target their inner demons'.
When we first read that phrase, we didn't quite get whether that was just paraphrasing the data breach or something else. The fact is that this data breach shows that any company, let alone CA, can actually target your 'inner demons'. This is why this is such a big deal.
The algorithm used, as per his account to the Observer, is based on 'likes' given out by the profiles they have on their database.
What could they possibly find through just 'likes', you may ask. The system built could find your sexual orientation, childhood trauma, relationship status, political views, vulnerability to drug abuse, and much more.
Someone like CA could build your entire character profile just from what you 'like', or now 'react' to, on Facebook. You don't even have to write a word, post a photo, make a statement or say anything out loud.
This has all been scientifically proven as possible - in this research paper published by another academic, Dr. Michal Kosinski. This paper can explain what came into play for Kogan, the lecturer who created the app, in helping garner so much data without anyone knowing anything.
"Governments, companies, and political parties use persuasive appeals to encourage people to eat healthier, purchase a particular product, or vote for a specific candidate." - Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion (by S. C. Matza, M. Kosinski, G. Navec, and D. J. Stillwell)
Who is on Facebook?
According to a report published in January by We Are Social, there are 2.167 billion people actively using Facebook, making it the most used social media platform in the world. It leads over the second most used platform, YouTube, by more than 500 million.
This, going by world population stats released by the United Nations in 2017, would mean that almost a third (28.5 per cent) of the 7.6 billion people in the world are on Facebook. It also means that Facebook has access to personal identity details of 2.167 billion people across the globe.
Companies like CA, therefore, could have access to the character profiles of a third of the world population, and then persuade them to do things without the user being aware at all.
Starting in November 2017, an undercover reporter from Channel 4 secretly filmed top executives at CA talking about their role in the elections.
What the world was not prepared for was the extent of the privacy breach that went on behind the scenes.
These reports, along with first-hand accounts from former employees of the firm about the practices followed by the firm to gather user data, is what set the ball rolling.
■ Facebook-scandal: Some ME user profiles may be impacted
■ How to protect yourself (your friends) on Facebook
■ Facebook 'data harvesting' scandal blows up
■ 50m FB user profiles ‘harvested’ without their permission
■ Facebook wants users to stop asking for likes
2013 - Cambridge Analytica hired external researchers from Cambridge University to start the research process to help in the elections.
2017 - CA is brought under US Congress investigation for alleged links to Russia's involvement in the 2016 election.
2018 - The company's former employees come forward with information on how CA collected profile data of millions of Facebook users without appropriate consent or privacy channels. Accounts of bribery and blackmail in US election campaigns were revealed by CA chief executive Alexander Nix in undercover video footage.
Do you feel affected by the Facebook data scandal?
Cambridge Analytica (CA) has become a notorious online presence lately; this week it made news for its alleged harvest of Facebook profiles, reportedly using it illegally to give the now US President Donald Trump an edge during the 2016 elections. But are people in the UAE really feeling affected by the breach of confidence? Have they even noticed what’s going on?
Here’s what Dubai residents said…
“Whilst this breach itself does not worry me since it doesn’t seem like my account would have been of interest to CA, it does highlight the need to be incredibly careful with the data we share on social me-dia that we may often assume is protected and private.”
- Steve Bambury, British, 39
“After reading the news I’ve felt disbelief, followed by fear and now I’m worried. I will at least try not to attempt clicking on any links on FB, and I will change my settings for more privacy.”
- Pooja Misra, Indian, 41.5
“I’m not a heavy FB user. To be honest I wasn’t even aware of this scandal.”
- Hanane ABA, 30-year-old, Moroccan
“Since this information was used to influence the US Presidential election, I don’t think my information was breached. But it is certainly appalling that Facebook was giving third-party apps the permission to harvest data that they wouldn’t need. Why does a quiz app need info on me and my friends? It cer-tainly goes to show the lack of foresight and vigilance from one of the world’s biggest corporations. I wouldn’t be surprised if this leads to the tech sector being regulated/policed, and I’m all for it.”
- Shahbaaz Ali Khan, 26, Indian
“My Facebook got hacked four years ago and I ended up never retrieving it. I heard about the scandal, however; I wasn’t surprised at all. Data monitoring and social breaches happen all the time but we never hear about them. Once it [your information] gets into the hand of people that have bad inten-tions then that becomes a huge issue.”
- Farid Hage, 26, American/Lebanese
“The fact that all my information on Facebook can and is being used by big corporations to direct-ly or indirectly line their pockets is not surprising, but infuriating all the same. I guess, it was only a mat-ter of time before something like this was brought out into the open, but I’m not too sure if this will change anything, anytime now. Stricter policies and security measures need to be put in place to pre-vent this from happening again, but personally, I don’t see it happening in our lifetime.”
- Anant Kurup, 26, Indian