How Cambridge Analytica's use of 50 million Facebook users' data turned into a scandal

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Cambridge Analytica, the political and corporate consulting group at the centre of Facebook’s data scandal, has a long history of aiding politicians with voter analytics.

Facebook has come under fire this week for allowing the data of more than 50 million users to be accessed by the political and corporate consulting firm, who worked with the Trump campaign during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and with Ted Cruz’s campaign before that.

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Who is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is an offshoot of government and military contractor SCL Group, and was founded in 2013 with an initial focus on American elections. The group’s name was chosen by the future White House adviser Steve Bannon and launched with US$15 million in support from Republican donor, Robert Mercer, reported the New York Times.

The firm works specifically in big data, behavioural micro-targeting, and according to its Twitter account, political campaign support.

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Alex Hanna, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and a social media expert, explained that while data collection is a well-known part of using social media, many people aren’t aware that their information can be used for political purposes as well.

“This has been going on for quite some time,” Hanna said. “The reason this struck such a nerve is that it has taken the form of political advertising.”

The consulting firm was hired by the Trump campaign to assist with data collection during the 2016 election. It’s important to note, however, that many politicians have used social media analytics while running campaigns in the past, including former U.S. president Barack Obama, whose data-crunching strategies eventually came to light.

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This kind of conduct isn’t incredibly unusual for political consulting firms, and Cambridge Analytica has played a background role in several past elections in multiple countries.

Britain’s Channel 4 News reported on Monday, based on secretly recorded video, that Cambridge Analytica secretly stage-managed Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns in the widely contested 2013 and 2017 elections. Cambridge Analytica denied these reports.

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In addition, the group was hired to assist several low-level GOP candidates in 2014 and eventually was elevated to supporting Cruz’s presidential run, reports Vox.

Anatoliy Gruzd, a professor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management and a social media expert, emphasized that while “businesses have been doing this type of data gathering for decades,” it’s important to draw a line between the normal practices of collecting public profile data and the activities Cambridge Analytica engaged in.

Why did they do?

Following Trump’s victory, the firm began spreading word that it could develop psychometric profiles of consumers and voters, calling it the “secret sauce” that it could use to sway voters using targeted advertising more effectively than others could. Trump’s campaign aides have denied their affiliation, claiming to have used data from a Republican National Committee operation.

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What eventually landed Cambridge Analytica in hot water was how it got access to the data used to create these profiles.

According to reports from the New York Times and the Observer, the firm began obtaining the data from over 50 million Facebook users in 2014 through an app developed by a British researcher from Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan.

Kogan received permission to mine data from Facebook users who signed up to use the app he’d developed called “thisismydigitalife.” Facebook claims he agreed to use this information for academic purposes rather than commercial, but later passed that information along to Cambridge Analytica.

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More than 270,000 people downloaded the application and took the quiz on its platform, and Facebook’s rules at the time allowed information from those individuals, as well as their Facebook friends, to be collected for the study.

Facebook said it received assurances years ago from Kogan and Cambridge Analytica that all wrongfully-retrieved data had been removed from its servers, but Canadian whistleblower and former Cambridge employee Christopher Wiley came forward this past week claiming that the data hadn’t been entirely erased.

What happens now?

While it’s been widely agreed that Cambridge Analytica was involved in questionable practices, as several countries including Canada have launched investigations, it remains unclear whether they’ve broken the law or violated any Facebook policies. In the meantime, both Cambridge Analytica and Aleksandr Kogan have been suspended from Facebook’s platform.

Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO Alexander Nix has been suspended pending an investigation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been called to testify. And Canada’s privacy commissioner, several U.S. states, and the U.K. government are launching investigations into the firm’s practices.

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A Facebook representative released the following statement to Global News:

“We are strongly committed to protecting people’s information and will answer any questions the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has,” read the statement.

-With files from Reuters. 

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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