Analysis Facebook has “suspended” any business with controversial analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its holding company, following claims by CA’s former director that the social media ad slinger’s data was purloined and used for political dirty tricks.
In a statement Facebook said that in April 2015 Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer at Cambridge University's Department of Psychology, published an app on its site called thisisyourdigitallife, and said it was "a research app used by psychologists." But instead of just using it for research, Facebook claims it was used for commercial purposes by Cambridge Analytica and others.
“Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app. In so doing, they gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it,” the statement reads.
The kicker’s in the last bit of that. Unless users had their Facebook privacy settings locked down the app slurped not only the 270,000 consenting users but all their friends as well - over 50 million people according to Christopher Wylie, a former researcher director at CA, who had a copy of the data set.
Facebook is peeved that the data was collected under an academic license and then sold commercially. Dr Kogan has no comment at time of publication, but CA has said it was misled about the data’s legality under British law when it worked with Kogan’s company Global Science Research (GSR) in 2014.
“When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, Cambridge Analytica deleted all data received from GSR,” CA said in a statement.
“No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.”
Facebook knew about the incident in 2015 and sought assurances from all concerned that the data had been deleted. What has prompted Friday’s suspension of Cambridge Analytica was Wylie going public to various media outlets with some extraordinary claims about how the data was used.
Down the rabbit hole
According to Wylie the Facebook data was used to build up detailed profiles of the social and political views of around 30 million US voters. Once their preferences had been cataloged, Cambridge Analytica determined what types of emotional and visual messages would sway their views and then spammed their social media fields with professionally produced, carefully crafted misinformation.
Wylie was an early employee of Cambridge Analytica and claims the firm’s flamboyant old-Etonian CEO Alexander Nix sold former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon on the technology. The way Wylie tells it, Bannon, who at the time was editor of the right-wing website Breitbart, wanted to use Cambridge Analytica’s technology to change the very culture of America.
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