Facebook has admitted that a data research firm, in violation of its terms, inappropriately harvested user data of as many 50 million people, mostly U.S. voters. In response, the company has suspended the accounts the firm, along with another company and two individuals, the company announced yesterday.
Cambridge Analytica, a data and political research firm, uses psychometrics, the study of human characteristics to predict human behavior. Information gleaned from things like personality tests, help researchers create algorithms that can help predict people’s reactions to online messaging, and ultimately, influence them.
The firm in the years leading up to the 2016 presidential election sought to use these methods to influence U.S. voters. The firm worked with the Trump campaign starting in June 2016. Wealthy Trump backer Robert Mercer was a heavy investor in the firm. His daughter Rebekah, had a seat on the board. Trump campaign manager and soon-to-be White House adviser Steve Bannon also took an ownership stake as well as a seat on the board.
It was revealed this week that the firm used personal information taken without Facebook’s authorization to build a data operation that profiled U.S. voters in order to target them with political messaging and ultimately, attempt to sway their votes.
A whistleblower named Christopher Wylie, who worked at Cambridge Analytica at the time of the data breach, worked with a Cambridge University scientist to gather the information. “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on,” Wylie said.
The academic at Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan, build an app called thisisyourdigitallife. Through Kogan’s company Global Science Research, and Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take personality tests and agreed to have their information collected.
Unbeknownst to those individuals however, and in violation of the Facebook’s terms, the app was also capturing information on their friends, rapidly building a database of tens of millions of users, allowing Cambridge Analytica to turn the social media activity of millions of Americans into a weapon of information combat.
Facebook in response to the breach suspended the accounts of Cambridge Analytica, its parent company, London-based Strategic Communication Laboratories, Wylie and Kogan. The company is calling it a violation of its terms of service but is not calling it a breach.
“The claim that this is a data breach is completely false. Aleksandr Kogan requested and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent. People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked,” the company wrote in a statement this morning.
But the company may be facing more questions as it has been revealed that Facebook became aware of the breach two years ago but took no steps to warn or inform its users about it. Facebook says it asked all parties to destroy the information and certify that they had done so, but did little else in the way of follow-up, surprising Wylie.
“That to me was the most astonishing thing. They waited two years and did absolutely nothing to check that the data was deleted. All they asked me to do was tick a box on a form and post it back,” he said.
The revelations have led lawmakers on Capitol Hill to call for an examination into the regulation of political ads on social media. “This story is more evidence that the online political advertising market is essentially the Wild West,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said.
“Whether it’s allowing Russians to purchase political ads, or extensive micro-targeting based on ill-gotten user data, it’s clear that, left unregulated, this market will continue to be prone to deception and lacking in transparency,” he added.
Wylie believes the stakes are even larger than data breaches and stolen user data. “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair,” Wylie said of Cambridge Analytica’s founders.
“They want to fight a culture war in America,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”