Here’s how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica harvested data from 50 million users for conservative political ads
Cambridge Analytical, a data analysis firm with a conservative bent, has been suspended from Facebook after allegations that Facebook allowed the firm access to its users personal information for their own political aims.
Cambridge Analytical is responsible for quite a few conservative upsets over the past few years, the feather in its cap being possibly its influence in securing the ultra conservative “Brexit” movement a victory in the UK. The firm most recently used Facebook’s social media data to build its strategy to get now President Trump into office.
Facebook began pitching its ability to connect companies with voters in early 2014. At the beginning stages, the data wasn’t anything particularly harmful, as it was limited to who’s registered to vote, where they live, and basic ideas of political leanings.
However in 2015, a professor at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, requested access to Facebook’s data for an alleged app used by psychologists called thisisyourdigitallife, and that’s where it started to get messy.
The app which was downloaded by around 270,000 Facebook users, required them to consent to sharing information about not only themselves, but also people on their friends list. Kogan told Facebook that the data would remain harmless and for research purposes only, but he turned around and shared his data with Euonia Technologies’ Christopher Wylie, with whom he built out Cambridge Analytical’s voter profiles.
To allow them to get more users and more data, Cambridge Analytical used Amazon Mechanical Turk, a platform which allows for people to complete surveys for around one or two dollars a survey, as the Intercept and the New York Times covered last year. This maneuver was the one that ultimately exposed over 50 million Facebook users’ data to a company which was in the business of manipulating it for its own political ends.
Curiously, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg seem to be laying low and waiting for the storm to blow over, or at least getting their stories aligned while Alex Stamos, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, is preparing to leave the company over Facebook’s response to these events. Facebook has suspended SCL and Cambridge Analytical from its platform, as well as issued a company line version of events on its blog, but at this point the damage has been done. Cambridge Analytical has already built out its profiles to use as they see fit.