Facebook Allowed Firm To Exploit Data To Target American Voters

According to Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who also helped found the Cambridge Analytica data analytics firm, Facebook allowed his company to collect data on more than 50 million users and then use that data to target them with electoral campaigns based on certain personality profiles.

Acquiring Facebook Data By The Rules

Back in 2014, a company called Global Science Research paid 270,000 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to install an app and then give it all the necessary permissions to gather as much of their Facebook account data as possible.

What these Mechanical Turk workers didn’t know is that the company didn’t just get their data, but all the data linked to their friends’ accounts, too, such as likes, comments, tags, and so on.  Through this technique alone, the company was able to gather data on 30 million users in total.

The Guardian later discovered that Global Science Research was founded by Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer from Cambridge University. He started the company after the university rejected his request to use its pool of data for commercial purposes.

Kogan collected the data from American Mechanical Turk workers on behalf of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), a military contractor with a U.S. spinoff called Cambridge Analytica. SCL’s electoral division claimed to use “data-driven messaging” as part of “delivering electoral success.”

The U.S. arm, Cambridge Analytica, ended up consulting on Donald Trump’s political campaign in 2016. Now, according to Wylie, it wants to work with the Pentagon, while also implying that Americans will be in for a bad time if they are allowed to do it. "It's like Nixon on steroids," he said to The Guardian.

Wylie provided records to UK newspaper The Observer which showed that between June and August 2014, the company was able to harvest the profiles of 50 million Americans. However, he added that by now Cambridge Analytica has been able to build profiles of 230 million Americans.

Facebook’s Response

Facebook said that Kogan, the psychology professor from Cambridge University, lied to the company about how it intended to use the Facebook user data. He initially told Facebook that his app was going to be a “research app used by psychologists.”

The company also said that Kogan then passed data from his app to SCL and Cambridge Analytica, thereby violating the platform's policies. Facebook noted that Kogan was following the platform rules when acquiring the data on so many people, but he subsequently violated them when he passed the data to other companies.

When Facebook learned about what Kogan did, it demanded that he, SCL, and Cambridge Analytica delete all the data and provide proof that they did so. However, the social media company received reports a few days back that Kogan and SCL/Cambridge Analytica didn’t delete all the data, so it’s now taking steps to suspend them from using the Facebook platform, pending further information.

Facebook added that it will take legal action, if necessary, to hold them accountable for unlawful behavior.

What This Means For Facebook Users

Facebook seems to be saying that Kogan's main violation of it policies was that he transferred the data he collected to another company, not that he gathered the data in the first place. However, the fact that any company can gather data on 50 million users, for "research" purposes or otherwise, is the real problem.

Over the past couple of years, Facebook has brought attention to itself by allowing advertisers or other companies to exploit users’ data to shape political opinion without any transparency. Facebook itself was caught manipulating users’ feelings in “experiments” a few years ago, so the company should have a good idea about how this data could be abused. Despite that, the company continues to allow third-party companies to exploit this data in similar ways.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • redgarl
    Keep going, put your life on FB, give all your information for free and don`t be surprised that someone having legal issue with you, is able to serve you.

    I know it, I did it.
  • therickmu25
    Yea, Obama was doing this exact same thing in 2007 and was lauded as an innovative social media wizard that was able to "Tap into social media's power with data"

    Trump was better at doing it than Clinton and we have a crime now.

    Hypocrites everywhere
  • therealduckofdeath
    therickmu25. That is so factually incorrect it's not shocking to see as a retort from someone defending this. That write-up clearly states Obama collected info at his rallies, stating why their info was collected. This user info download was based on an anonymous survey that had nothing to do with the election and it was combined with a Russian's developer account access that allowed them to download all user data for anyone on the participants friends lists. Hence, the 50 million number out of a few hundred thousand initial names.
  • andrewkelb
    Independent Journal Review article came out today with the former director of integrity and media analytics for Obama for America. She said FB was "on our side" and FB let the campaign "ingest the entire social network". Partisanship aside, no one should be happy with what FB does and what people do with FB's information.
  • kenjitamura
    Kind of hard for me to feel outraged about this. People are going online and divulging absolutely everything about themselves and all this company and facebook are doing is keeping it on record. Yeah they're not telling them that the information is going to be weaponized for political purposes but honestly if you're not already suspecting that of every company out there then you are just willfully blind to the cut throat moral less world of business.
  • Wisecracker
    Interesting that seemingly innocuous groups, even at THG, use "weaponized for political purposes" (good one!) ... especially those who use 'independent' in their titles, and of course, our old friends "freedom" and "patriots"

    Do they have an off-switch ??
  • therealduckofdeath
    The "off switch" was the one Facebook lied to its users about a couple years ago, when they started promising that your privacy was their top priority. They've clearly kept selling all of it to the highest bidders since then.
    I have a feeling Facebook, Google, Twitter and their likes are in for some really tough times in Europe over the next few years. Was the short huge profits worth it? I don't think so...
  • turkey3_scratch
    I can't stress how important education is. Do I think it's unethical for them to, to quote the article, "exploit users’ data to shape political opinion without any transparency"? Yes, I do think it's unethical. Regardless, I think people need to be educated in society so their political opinion is not shaped by something as external as certain targeted headlines and filtered content being displayed on a screen. Arguably, I think if one's political opinion is shaped by that, they are not actually doing factual research in the first place or already have an agenda they are just looking to be confirmed.

    And that is to be expected. If you are going to really identify strongly with some political opinion, I would hope it's based upon actual research. But that's boring, for most people politics is a sports game: they inherit the team of their parents or family, or their friends, and they are in it to win it.

    This goes along with the Russia interference in the 2016 elections. Again, do I think it's unethical for them to do this? Yes. But we are ignoring a larger issue here. The interference was pretty much done by means of influencing the opinion of the voters. The actual votes cast in the ballot were still the voters; the machines were not manipulated. The only thing manipulated were people's minds, and the counter to this is education.

    Philosophy, political science - hit the books on these things, really think about this stuff and delve deep, and pretty soon nothing on Facebook will have any influence over your political opinion. I believe I used to have more strong political opinions, but as I continue to realize what I don't know, I separate myself from opinions since I acknowledge I'm not really educated in those aspects, as I haven't done real research. The more you learn the less confident you are in a subject matter, until you become truly an expert. This is the Dunning Kruger Effect.

    TLDR: We need to educate society better so they are not influenced by stuff in the media so easily.
  • therealduckofdeath
    Organisations like Cambridge Analytica didn't target you head on with political arguments. That doesn't work. We have a decades long defence mechanism towards that. Never backing down on our political opinions. They were targeting personal interests. You're a dog person? Here's a fake story about immigrants driving around in a white van stealing all the dogs. You like MMO's? You get a story about foreigners spending thousands on cheating. You like community work? Lucky you, you get a story about how they're abusing that. You wish you had a better job? You get fed lies about how women and coloured are taking all the good jobs while getting equal pay and never having to go to work.
    Triggering people by making them hate groups of people based on common personalities or interests. It's simple, cheap and extremely effective when they do it all without any insight.
  • logainofhades
    My vote wasn't influenced by any of this. Sadly, my vote was a lesser of two evils type of vote. Neither candidate was what I would call a good one.