News

All you need to know about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

What's going on with your Facebook data and how did we get here?

British research firm Cambridge Analytica has hit the headlines this week after an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News, alongside evidence given to the press by a whistleblower who had ties with the organisation, uncovered some rather unsavoury working practices. There’s a lot to digest, especially if you’re not familiar with social networks and how digital data is used for advertising and campaigning. If that’s the case, we’ve put together this quick-fire guide that should get you up to speed on the issue that could have profound implications for how we protect our digital data going forward.

What is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a British-based consumer data research organisation that was established in 2013 by Alexander Nix to help businesses and political parties to understand and exploit audience behaviour.

Its researchers take the vast amounts of data able to be collated on people online, like the information contained in their social media accounts, and apply behavioural science to aid its customers in targeting and influencing those people.

One of Cambridge Analytica’s most successful early campaigns was in influencing US elections. In 2013, the company received a $15 million fund from Republican party donor Robert Mercer, and then went on to win contracts with various Republican governors contesting for political seats. Cambridge Analytica worked on Ted Cruz’s Republican presidential candidate campaign. Mercer, a fervent Trump supporter, also became a shareholder in Cambridge Analytica as the company continued to forge strong links with right-wing customers who were eager to exploit audiences and influence election results.

38286773901_5bc03e55f1_z
Cambridge Analytica CEO Nix. Image: Web Summit

“We collect up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans and use more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict the behaviour of like-minded people,” so boasts Cambridge Analytica. In 2016, Cambridge Analytica was hired by a soon-to-be-successful Trump presidential campaign.

How does Facebook come into this?

Facebook’s very business model is founded on the harvesting and selling of its customer data, but the social network’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica has taken that notion to an unprecedented level.

In 2014, Cambridge Analytica – which was in the process of mapping users’ online identities to determine their political biases, likes and dislikes, and potential voting intentions – bought into an app developed by British-based academic Aleksandr Kogan for Facebook users that acted as a personality survey. To gain access to the app, which was marketed as a fun, sharable personality quiz akin to hundreds of the other quizzes and games so common on Facebook, Kogan required Facebook users to allow it to scrape their personal profile details – an action now banned by Facebook but which was all above board at the time.

As a result – and what has been further revealed this month through a whistleblower named Christopher Wylie who worked on the app with Kogan – it turns out the app provided Kogan and Cambridge Analytica with more than 50 million raw profiles of Facebook users. While only around 270,000 Facebook users used the app, Kogan was able to access associated profiles and friends of these users to gain even more data. Ethical considerations around influencing elections and political campaigns, such as Brexit, and the use of personal data aside, the big question is now is: Did Cambridge Analytica and Kogan break the law?

What happens next?

For starters, a formal request has been sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from British MPs requesting him to answer questions regarding the acquisition and use of private user data.

Last Friday, Facebook itself issued a statement saying that it had removed Kogan’s app from Facebook after it had learned that his research had been given to Cambridge Analytica.

7985186041_b08232360d_z
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Image: JD Lasica

At the time, the data from the app was gathered by gaming Facebook’s own platform and was not taken illegally, but Facebook argues the data was not authorised for Kogan to share with others. Another legal point of contention is that customers of the app were not made aware that their profile information may be used in Donald Trump’s election campaign.

Cambridge Analytica itself claims that it never used the data and actually deleted it when requested to by Facebook. Determining this information is now the crux of the investigation.

Facebook issued a statement, “Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made. We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information.”

The UK’s Information Commissioner, who is responsible for the digital data privacy policies of UK citizens, is applying a for a warrant to search the offices of Cambridge Analytica, based in London.

I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment

But there’s more. Britain’s Channel 4 News also this week broadcast hidden camera footage of its reporters posing undercover as potential Cambridge Analytica customers. The footage captured the firm’s boss Nix suggesting he could use customer data collected online to help discredit politicians ahead of elections – very sleazy.

Nix has denied any wrongdoing. “I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honeytraps’, and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose,” he said in a statement.

Zuckerberg also has to testify before Congress in the US about further actions Facebook will take to protect its users’ data. The European Parliament is also now investigating Facebook’s potential data misuse.

And regardless of legal outcomes for now, it’s not good news for Facebook or for the privacy of the hundreds of millions of its users. At a time when the social network is already under heavy fire for not dealing with fake news, unfairly influencing political campaigns in its own right, and not acting quick enough to shut down terrorist propaganda, its partnership with Cambridge Analytica is only now fanning the flames for a company in turmoil.

Main image: Flickr/iStock

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
June 2024 payment dates for DWP benefits – plus changes to universal credit
money in wallet/ dwp benefits
Benefits

June 2024 payment dates for DWP benefits – plus changes to universal credit

Gen Z want to buy houses, smoke weed and do crimes, report finds. What does this mean for UK's future?
Generation Z

Gen Z want to buy houses, smoke weed and do crimes, report finds. What does this mean for UK's future?

Post-Brexit border checks to cost £4.7bn. Here's how that money could be better spent
The white cliffs of Dover, where Brexit border controls will come into force
Brexit

Post-Brexit border checks to cost £4.7bn. Here's how that money could be better spent

Archbishop of Canterbury joins growing calls for end to 'cruel' and 'immoral' two-child benefit cap
archbishop of canterbury
Two-child benefit cap

Archbishop of Canterbury joins growing calls for end to 'cruel' and 'immoral' two-child benefit cap

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know