Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign, harvested millions of US-based Facebook profiles and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.
The data was collected through an app called “thisisyourdigitallife”, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research, in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of data on millions of users. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising.
Kogan, who has previously unreported links to a Russian university and took Russian grants for research, had a license from Facebook to collect profile data, but it was for research purposes only. Kogan maintains everything he did was legal, and says he had a close working relationship with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps. Facebook says that while the data was obtained by Cambridge Analytica legitimately, it claims that Kogan “lied” to the social media platform and violated its policies in transferring the data. Facebook banned Kogan’s app in 2015 and ordered all parties he had given data to, including the consultancy, to destroy it. Recent reports surfaced suggesting that this data was not destroyed
A whistleblower and former employee, Christopher Wylie, has revealed how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorization in early 2014 to build a system that profiled individual US voters, in order to target them with personalized political ads. The company, however, may have a bigger impact in other parts of the world, often through front organizations. Cambridge Analytica claims to have worked in a wide range of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Malaysia and Mexico.
The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election. At least four members of Congress are demanding that Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg appear in person to explain the breach, with some asking that other technology executives join him. Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are also a focus of an inquiry into data and politics by the British Information Commissioner’s Office. Separately, the Electoral Commission is also investigating what role Cambridge Analytica played in the EU referendum.