Image: REUTERS
Image: REUTERS

The horrendous actions by Cambridge Analytica, a voter profiling company, and Aleksander Kogan, a Russian-American researcher, raise serious questions about privacy, social media, democracy and fraud.

Amidst the justified furor, one temptation should be firmly resisted: for public and private institutions to lock their data down, blocking researchers and developers from providing the many benefits that it promises – for health, safety, and democracy itself.

The precise facts remain disputed, but according to reports, here’s what happened. Kogan worked as a lecturer at Cambridge University, which has a Psychometrics Centre. The Centre purports to be able to use data from Facebook (including "likes'') to ascertain people’s personality traits. Cambridge Analytica and one of its founders, Christopher Wylie, attempted to work with the Centre for purposes of vote profiling. It refused, but Kogan accepted the offer.

Without disclosing his relationship to Cambridge Analytica, Kogan entered into an agreement with Facebook, which agreed to provide data to him - solely for his own research purposes. Kogan created an app, called "thisisyourdigitallife.'' Offering a personality prediction, the app described itself on Facebook as "a research app used by psychologists.'' About 270,000 Facebook users agreed to disclose their data (again, for research purposes).

By sharing data with Cambridge Analytica, Kogan violated his agreement with Facebook. According to one report, he ended up providing more than 50 million user profiles to Cambridge Analytica, not for academic research, but to build profiles for partisan political uses.

Armed with those profiles, Cambridge Analytica worked with members of the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns in 2016. Among other things, the firm helped to model voter turnout, identify audiences for fund-raising appeals and advertisements, and specify the best places for Trump to travel to increase support.

As early as 2015, Facebook learned that Kogan was sharing his data, and it demanded that Kogan, Cambridge Analytica, and Wylie cease using, and destroy, all the information they had obtained. They certified that they had done so.

That was a lie – which recently led Facebook to suspend all three from its platform. Facebook was careful to add, "People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.''

Without disclosing his relationship to Cambridge Analytica, Kogan entered into an agreement with Facebook, which agreed to provide data to him - solely for his own research purposes. Kogan created an app, called "thisisyourdigitallife.'' Offering a personality prediction, the app described itself on Facebook as "a research app used by psychologists.'' About 270,000 Facebook users agreed to disclose their data (again, for research purposes).

By sharing data with Cambridge Analytica, Kogan violated his agreement with Facebook. According to one report, he ended up providing more than 50 million user profiles to Cambridge Analytica, not for academic research, but to build profiles for partisan political uses.

Armed with those profiles, Cambridge Analytica worked with members of the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns in 2016. Among other things, the firm helped to model voter turnout, identify audiences for fund-raising appeals and advertisements, and specify the best places for Trump to travel to increase support.

As early as 2015, Facebook learned that Kogan was sharing his data, and it demanded that Kogan, Cambridge Analytica, and Wylie cease using, and destroy, all the information they had obtained. They certified that they had done so.

That was a lie – which recently led Facebook to suspend all three from its platform. Facebook was careful to add, "People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.''

- Bloomberg


Please sign in or register to comment.