Recently, Cambridge Analytica, a British data mining company has recently come under scrutiny for its use of Facebook data to try to influence the US election and Brexit. While this is a pressing issue, it also raises bigger questions in regards to our privacy over the internet. So how did this all start?
Cambridge Analytica, as previously mentioned, is a data mining company that tries to analyze the vast troves of data they collect to provide clients with richer insights. The way they would do this is by collecting information about a person (ex. what Facebook they liked, their posts, locations, etc.). With this, they would create psychographic profiles on the each person, and this information would be passed on to campaigns. These campaigns would then use the personality traits about individuals in certain states to drive behaviour. They were initially used by the Cruz and Carson campaign in late 2015. However, when it was reported that the company may have used personal information from Facebook users, Cambridge Analytica reportedly deleted them. And so the question remains, why is this still relevant?
It turns out that Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm, SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories), received the Facebook information from Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American psychology professor at Cambridge University. He built a Facebook app called “thisismydigitallife” and it would collect information on users who completed the quiz. Not only was it able to collect data from the approximately 270 000 users, but was also able to collect private information of the friends of these users such as their likes, posts, location, etc. This technique is known as “seeding” and it was pretty effective because on average, each user would have around 300 friends. This is how Kogan was able to collect the private data of over 50 million users. This data was then passed on to SCL who created psychographic profiles based on the Big Five personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. This is where the controversy lies, not only did millions of people have their private data collected without their knowledge, but it was passed on to various campaigns. While users do consent to having their data passed on to researchers for academic purposes when they create a Facebook account, it is prohibited to transfer this data to any third party ad network, data broker, or any other monetization related service.
Around the time Trump was campaigning, Steve Bannon was the vice president of SCL who not only introduced Cambridge Analytica to the Trump campaign, but also secured funding from conservative mega donors Rebekah and Robert Mercer. This is what has led to widespread investigations into this company. Congress and the Senate have both asked to hold hearings in regard to Facebook’s link to Cambridge Analytica. Robert Mueller has even requested the company to turn over internal documents in relation to the possible election meddling. In addition, there are hearings being held in the UK over Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit campaigns. With all these reports coming out about data leaks, these investigations are starting to raise concerns over the security of our data over the internet going forward.
Ritvik Singh is a grade 11 student at the Academy for Gifted Children – P.A.C.E. His interests primarily lie in mathematics, economics, and computers. He is also an academic coordinator at FUSE Society and a member of his school’s robotics team.