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 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.