LONDON: At the centre of a scandal over alleged misuse of Facebook users’ personal data, Cambridge Analytica is a communications firm hired by those behind Donald Trump’s successful US presidential bid.
An affiliate of British firm Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), Cambridge Analytica has offices in London, New York, Washington, as well as Brazil and Malaysia.
Here’s the story behind the company using data to fuel political campaigns:
What does Cambridge Analytica do?
The company boasts it can “find your voters and move them to action” through data-driven campaigns and a team including data scientists and behavioural psychologists.
“Within the United States alone, we have played a pivotal role in winning presidential races as well as congressional and state elections,” with data on more than 230 million American voters, Cambridge Analytica claims on its website.
Speaking to TechCrunch in 2017, CEO Alexander Nix said the firm was “always acquiring more” data.
“Every day we have teams looking for new data sets,” he told the site.
Who are the company’s clients?
As well as working on the election which saw Trump reach the White House, Cambridge Analytica has been involved in political campaigns around the world.
In the US, analysts harnessed data to generate thousands of messages targeting voters through their profiles on social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, or the Pandora Radio streaming service.
British press have credited Cambridge Analytica with providing services to pro-Brexit campaign Leave, but Nix has denied working for the group.
Globally, Cambridge Analytica said it has worked in Italy, Kenya, South Africa, Colombia and Indonesia.
What has the company been accused of?
According to the New York Times and Britain’s Observer newspapers, Cambridge Analytica stole information from 50 million Facebook users’ profiles in the tech giant’s biggest-ever data breach, to help them design software to predict and influence voters’ choices at the ballot box.
University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan created a personality prediction test app, thisisyourdigitallife, which was downloaded by 270,000 people.
The tool allowed Kogan to access information such as content Facebook users had “liked” and the city they listed on their profile, which was then passed to SCL and Cambridge Analytica.
The Observer reported the app also collected information from the Facebook friends of people who had taken the test.
Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, worked with Kogan and told Canadian television channel CBC that the company used “private data they acquired without consent”.
Who else is involved?
US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer — and major Republican party donor — bankrolled Cambridge Analytica to the tune of $15 million (€12 million or Dh55.05 million).
The Observer said it was headed at the time by Steve Bannon, a top Trump adviser until he was fired last summer.
How has Facebook responded?
Facebook suspended SCL and Cambridge Analytica, as well as Kogan and Wylie.
In explaining its decision on Friday, the social media giant said the thisisyourdigitallife app was legitimate, but accused Kogan of subsequently violating Facebook’s terms by passing the data on to SCL/Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook said it found out what had happened in 2015 and was told all parties involved had deleted the data.
“The claim that this is a data breach is completely false,” Facebook said in a new statement on Saturday, saying app users knowingly provided their information.
OK, so what do I do now?
There is a multipronged approach you can take to protect yourself from data-harvesting apps and programs. That includes tools you can install in your browser and settings you can tweak on Facebook. Here’s a rundown of what you should do:
If you are concerned about what details apps can see about you and your Facebook friends, now is a good time to check your privacy settings and minimize the information you share publicly. For example, you can make sure that only your friends can see your Facebook posts, or that only you can see your friends list.
Audit your Facebook apps
If you used Facebook to sign in to a third-party website, game or app, those services may continue to access your personal data. On Facebook, go to the settings page and click on the Apps tab to see which apps are connected to your account. From there, take a closer look at the permissions you granted to each app to see what you are sharing. Remove any apps that you find suspicious or no longer use.
Read privacy policies
There are add-ons that you can install in your browser that try to block trackers embedded on websites. But be aware that in some cases, they will make parts of websites work improperly. In our tests, Disconnect and Privacy Badger were useful tools for blocking trackers on Google’s Chrome browser.
Here’s a primer on how tracking works,
to give you a sense of why blockers are important: When you engage with an app on Facebook, it may plant a tracker in your web browser, like a cookie, that collects information from you. Even when you close out of the app, the tracker can continue.
Another way to block trackers is to prevent ads from loading altogether. Ad blockers are also add-ons that you can install for your browser on your mobile device or computer.
Mobile ads are fully functioning programs, and they sometimes include malware that harvest some of your data.
Even the largest websites do not have tight control over the ads that appear on their sites - and sometimes malicious code can appear inside their ad networks. A popular ad blocker among security researchers is uBlock Origin.
Even if you read the privacy policies, you still may have to take them with a grain of salt.
In the case of the thisisyourdigitallife app, the fine print said the information would be collected for academic use, not commercial purposes. So think twice before sharing information with unfamiliar companies or organisations.
Clear your browsing data
Periodically, you can clear your cookies and browsing history. Apple, Google and Microsoft have published instructions on how to clear data for their browsers Safari, Chrome and Internet Explorer. That will temporarily delete cookies and trackers, though they will probably reappear over time.