You log in, like some photos from the weekend, share a cat post scroll, scroll and scroll some more then fall asleep. Tomorrow, you rinse and repeat. Facebook is an odd place but it also seems to be a fairly harmless place too, right? Thanks to classic investigative journalism by The Guardian, Observer and Channel 4 in the UK, Facebook finds itself at the centre of a massive news story thanks to a research company called Cambridge Analytics. What is this all about and more importantly what does it mean for you?
There’s a chance you’ve heard of Cambridge Analytica, a company whose name was picked solely to impress former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Cambridge Analytica rose to fame for their secretive role in getting Donald Trump into the White House through their use of massive quantities of Facebook user data. With this data, the company were able to help the Trump campaign shape targetted, personalised messages, designed to influence the general public on an emotional level.
Now, this is no massive story in itself, but how Cambridge Analytica gathered data and the lengths they apparently offer to go through to get the job done are a different story.
How Cambridge Analytica Works
As a massive data company, Cambridge Analytica depends on huge quantities of information to form their lifeblood. Naturally, the likes of Facebook actually are rather protective when it comes to data so Cambridge Analytica used some alternative means of data gathering. One such method was revealed by a former employee of the company; a founding member by the name of Christoper Wylie.
Who is Christopher Wylie?
Christopher Wylie is a data scientist and as with many numbers based people, it would appear he was deeply involved in problem-solving and information trafficking before he truly realised the impact of what he was at. Wylie revealed that Cambridge Analytica harvested data from over 50 million Facebook users through Facebook apps. Yup. You know those stupid apps that work out what age you’ll be when you die? Well, they could be feeding a lot more than your own morbid curiosity.
Wylie revealed how Cambridge Analytica paid groups of users to complete personality tests through a Facebook app. To access the app, users had to provide permission for the app to process their personal data. Meet the tip of the iceberg. With this permission, Cambridge Analytica was able to weave their way through even more users, namely friends and family of the user that initially provided permission.
Using this method, Cambridge Analytica harvested data from over 50 million users and there’s, unfortunately, an Irish connection too.
Cambridge Analytica: The Irish Connection
Back in 2011, Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems highlighted a loophole in how Facebook app permissions provided by one user could allow the harvesting of data from friends and family of that user without the users providing consent or even being aware of what was going on. This would appear to be the exact process described publically by Cambridge Analytica founder Christopher Wylie. After uncovering the loophole, Schrems raised the issue with an Irish regulator in 2011, as the social media giant provides Ireland as it’s EU-wide base.
I got in touch with the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland who confirmed the “issue of ‘friends’ data being harvested when a Facebook user engaged with an app on Facebook was resolved by Facebook in May 2014 when access to friends data was restricted by a platform upgrade”. This came as a result of a 2012 recommendation by the DPC. The Irish DPC is also following up with Facebook Ireland to establish what level of oversight the platform has over app developers and how they use the platform.
The statement from the DPC also highlighted that “micro-targeting of social media users with political advertisements and sponsored stories remains an ongoing issue today. In the absence of laws specifically regulating such political targeting online, the Irish DPC intends to issue guidance to users in terms of how they can trace why they are receiving certain advertisements and stories on social media, how they can mute or turn off receiving advertisements from those sources and how they can amend their ad preferences to control the types of ads they are served.”
This is a worrying thought to consider as Ireland heads towards a referendum on the 8th Amendment. In January it emerged that an Irish anti-abortion group hired Kanto, a company founded by a former employee of Cambridge Analytica which offers similar analytical social services. Now many are wondering what involvement social will have over Ireland’s democratic process following similar movements influencing the US election and Brexit.
In the past few days, leaks and reports have begun streaming through the internet with British investigators seeking warrants to search Cambridge Analytica’s servers. But what’s the big deal? What harm can data do?
Cambridge Analytica: Hijacking Democracy With Faceless Propaganda
Through the continued reports emerging from various journalists digging deep into the story, the incredible influence of Cambridge Analytica has become clear. Their efforts go far beyond analysing your likes and shares, revealed through undercover recordings of meetings between journalists and Cambridge Analytica chiefs; Mark Turnbull and Alexander Nix.
Mark Turnbull: Restrained and Calculated
At first, Mark Turnbull would appear to be somewhat restrained in what he believes to be acceptable services offered by Cambridge Analytica. Trawling through user data, in a secretly taped meeting, Turnbull outlined how Cambridge Analytica could pinpoint the moment to target people and with what kind of message to influence their voting behaviour ahead of the Trump election, Kenyan elections and Brexit vote.
There’s no point running campaigns on facts. Successful campaigns are run on emotions.
While Turnbull outlined some fairly terrible facts surrounding how Cambridge Analytica operates, it would be nothing compared to the company’s CEO, Alexander Nix.
Alexander Nix: CEO of Cambridge Analytica
As Channel 4’s video footage continued to document what the data company offered to potential clients, it became clear there are no lines. While Turnbull did try to establish limits with the “prospective clients”, company CEO, Alexander Nix, knocked down that facade. Nix publically discussed quite a bit of Cambridge Analytica’s work on the likes of the Trump campaign but videos detailing the lengths his company would go through to get the job done are jaw-dropping to watch.
While Turnbull outlined how the company would influence the public through carefully planned videos based on user data and predictive data analytics, he was also careful to highlight the company was not in the business of distributing fake news. In steps Nix who shows a lot more interest in doing whatever needs to be done to achieve their goals, whether it be entrapment through sex workers or filming dodgy deals. Aye, Cambridge Analytica has found itself in a whole world of shit; but they’re not alone.
What Does All of this Mean for Facebook?
Facebook was slow to react when Schrems highlighted the initial data loophole to Irish regulators but as this new chapter in the Cambridge Analytica story broke they scrambled a little faster. First of all, Facebook was quick to say this wasn’t a data breach as all data was accessed by users providing permission. They did point out that Cambridge Analytica, through a third party, access data breaching their policies and banned those involved; including Christopher Wylie.
Regardless, Facebook does indeed have a lot to answer for and we’ll be watching this story closely as it develops in the coming weeks and months.
What Does this Mean for Facebook Users?
While the actions of Cambridge Analytica are largely despicable and far beyond the fault of users, users can take action to reduce the likelihood of their data being handled and used by third parties. Take some time to run Facebook’s built-in privacy audit – at the very least. You should also spend a substantial amount of time looking through the apps that have access to your data. Don’t feel like this doesn’t concern you because it really does. We’re entering a new age online where data is a massive commodity, turning the gears of the world.
I strongly recommend reading this fantastic article by Hazel O’Keeffe, detailing how to take the first steps, right through to ‘Fort Knoxing’ your Facebook profile.
Update: Article updated at 14:00 20/03/2018 to include statement from the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.