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Facebook – Cambridge Analytica: A Nasty Nexus

Facebook – Cambridge Analytica: A Nasty Nexus


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Sting operation conducted by UK’s Channel 4 recorded Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix, in a secret tape, claiming about the company’s role in Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 elections. Nix didn’t have a clue that the pretentious outburst will trigger a chain of events and would set off a debate over data breach, allegedly choreographed by Facebook. Besides Mr Nix, another person who has allegedly been made a “scapegoat” is Dr Alexander Kogan, an academic at Cambridge University, who ran a survey app on Facebook.

Since then Facebook is facing contemptuous criticism following an exposé that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica scooped a whopping 50 million profiles from the social networking site to plan campaigns for 2016 US elections and Brexit referendum. The data leaks fraud has forced Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to concede that the right steps were not taken and that they needed to ensure this does not repeat.

In March 2018, Facebook faced one of the serious and far-reaching crises in its 14 years history. Facegate was revealed by Britain’s Observer and the New York Times that a researcher from Cambridge University, psychologist Dr Alexander Kogan had acquired information of some 300,000 Facebook users by urging the users to download an app and take part in a survey in 2012.

Dr Kogan didn’t stop here. He shared the data with Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, which allegedly made the data available to others, including Donald Trump’s Campaign. Cambridge Analytica was funded by a multimillion-dollar investment by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and headed by his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who was the company’s president, according to a report published in the Washington Post, dated 4th April 2018.

Serving as vice president was conservative strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who also was the head of Breitbart News. He has since left both jobs and also his post as top White House adviser to Trump.

It is believed that some 87 million Facebook users are affected, of whom 71 million were Americans. During the initial years, Facebook’s policies were unconfined that people who used a third-party app often shared data not only about themselves but also about their friends without their awareness. However, later in 2014, Facebook changed its wobbly policies.

The data was misused in such a way that even Facebook was unmindful of. Facebook learned about the problem in 2015 and instead of rectifying the loopholes, it threatened to sue the Guardian Media Group, which owns the observer, in case it published the expose. Facebook, however, acted only after public outcry and when the media group counterattacked Facebook.

Facegate’s knock-on-effect is also showing up in India, where mainstream political parties, the Congress and the BJP are exchanging charges with each other for using the services of Cambridge Analytica and its parent firm Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) to manipulate elections. Nevertheless, the Indian authorities have warned Facebook against any attempts to meddle in the country’s electoral process.

Ravi Shankar Prasad

Representational Pic

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Information and Technology, said any attempts by Facebook to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will not be tolerated. “If need be, strong action will be taken”.

In response, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg said: “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago.” The Facebook CEO admitted the company had made mistakes and that they needed to do more to check them.

Back to Facegate, the question arises how did Cambridge Analytica manage to get the data of 87 million Facebook users? The firm (CA) relied on the personalized quiz on Facebook, which was created by a Cambridge University researcher, Dr Alexander Kogan with the help of a quiz called “this is your digital life” and some 300,000 people according to Facebook.

Dr Kogan accessed further data illegally to nearly 50 million profiles without the permission of the users. The act itself was against Facebook guidelines. Dr Kogan, thus, broke a Facebook rule by sharing the data with a third-party called Cambridge Analytica.

The Guardian Media Group reported the scandal in 2015 that the firm (CA) was using data of Facebook users to help the US presidential campaign of Ted Cruz’s, who was in the Republican candidate race at that time.

Also, the report mentioned Cambridge Analytica and raised questions about the ethics of how they were collecting this data. Both the Observer and New York Times put out detailed reports showing how the firm likely helped Donald Trump win the US Presidential elections and the Pro-Brexit side in the UK.

Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who worked with the Cambridge University academic has revealed key details on how the whole system worked. He also told the Observer, that the firm successfully “exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles.

And built models to exploit what we knew about them. “The firm likely played a role in influencing elections in other parts of the world as well, like in Kenya, Indonesia, Thailand, etc. It has also been revealed that using the sophisticated data tools, the firm targeted swing voters with just the right messages.

Christopher Wylie, a Kogan’s collaborator, confirmed that data had been used in the US presidential election to profile individuals and influence the final vote. Wylie provided evidence to the New York Times and the Guardian that harvested data had not been destroyed or deleted.

In the past, Facebook has encountered a controversy. It was an ad platform called Beacon, through which companies like Travelocity and Fandango automatically used to post items to users’ feeds. Ultimately, Facebook added an opt-out option, however, users complained that it was difficult to find. The program was finally abandoned and Facebook had to pay $9.5 million to settle the lawsuit brought by sullen users. Zuckerberg called Beacon a mistake in 2011.

Nonetheless, the present Facegate is a complete breach of trust. Cambridge Analytica obtained the data by relying on different techniques and more detailed and extensive tools than the hackers collected using Facebookok’s search functions.

 CA’s data set included, user names, hometowns, work, educational credentials, religious affiliations, political slant, Facebook ‘likes’ of users and those tagged with them. Other users affected were in the Philipines, Indonesia, the UK, Canada and Mexico.

However, Facebook declined to say how much user data went to Cambridge Analytica. Facebook said that only 270,000 people had responded to a survey app created by the researcher in 2014. The researcher was able to gather information on the friends of the respondents without their permission, vastly expanding the scope of his data.

Wylie tweeted that Cambridge Analytica could have obtained even more than 87 million profiles. “Could be more tbh,” he wrote, using an abbreviation for “to be honest (tbh).”

Since the scandal marred Zuckerberg’s image in the public, Facebook is embarking on a major shift in its relationship with third-party app developers that have used Facebook’s vast network to expand their businesses.  It announced plans to add new restrictions to how app developers, data brokers and the third parties can gain access to this data, the latest steps in a years-long process to improve its damaged reputation as a steward of the personal privacy of its users.

Furthermore, Facebook said it has banned Cambridge Analytica last month because the data firm improperly obtained profile information. Personal data on users and their Facebook friends was easily and widely available to developers of apps before 2015.

Facebook is also banning apps from accessing users’ information about their religious or political views, relationship status, education, work history, fitness activity, book reading habits, music listening and news reading activity, video watching and games. Data brokers and businesses collect this type of information to build profiles of their customers’ tastes.

Moreover, Facebook will investigate CubeYou following allegations published by CNBC. The company said it would permanently ban CubeYou’s apps if it refused or failed an audit.

On the contrary, Cambridge Analytica refuted many claims made about the company’s business. The company contended that it only ever received data on 30 million US citizens; that it did not use the data at all in the Trump campaign or the Brexit referendum and that the Facebook data it received was legally obtained through a Facebook tool.

“It has become open season for critics to say whatever they like about us based on speculation and hearsay,” as per the acting chief executive, Alexander Tayler.

In addition, CubeYou and Cambridge University both claim it was clear in the app’s terms and conditions that the data could be used for either academic or commercial purposes. CubeYou said it has always followed Facebook’s rules.

A challenging task before Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg is the “reputational damage”.  Since past 18 months, Facebook has been in damage control mode and has been apologetic for mishandling the data breach, however, its COO, Sheryl Sandberg has suggested that in order to save profile data from being shared with advertisers, users have to pay.

Previously Zuckerberg went gaga over Facebook being instrumental in the Trump’s victory but later he withdrew from his comment and ran into the opposite direction, saying that his job was to allow people to share “personal moments”. Now the US presidential elections are over and Trump has resumed the office, will Mark Zuckerberg rectify the pitfalls and gain users trust is a moot question.


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