Posted on March 20, 2018 at 7:08 AM
Facebook users lied to
This week, the Guardian reported that Facebook has allowed more the 50 million users’ data to be used by Cambridge Analytica. The British company offers data analysis products to its customers, including services that are created to modify audience behavior.
According to the Guardian, the user data was collected via the “thisisyourdigitallife” app, which is essentially a personality quiz. The quiz was created by Dr. Aleksander Kogan, a professor of psychology at Cambridge. The app’s permissions were set such that users who opted in also signed up to share their friends’ data. More than 270 million users were registered and paid for Dr. Kogan’s test. He says that the test was a psychology tool, used to study user behavior. His firm, Global Science Research sold the information to Cambridge Analytica.
The biggest problem with this, of course, is that the 270 million odd participants were not aware that they were selling out their friends, and their friends did not consent to the sharing of their data explicitly. The app seemed to have woven through permissions loopholes in order to collect the information.
How data was collected, allegedly used
Cambridge Analytica has used the Facebook information to exploit millions of profiles, according to Christopher Wylie, a former employee of the data analysis firm. Wylie also says there are numerous models for exploiting information of this kind, and that the basis of the company was basically to analyze and manipulate this data.
The personality quiz app, “thisisyourdigitallife” was specifically programmed to consider the act of opting into the test equivalent to consenting permission to access Facebook account information, and contacts. Friends who had set their privacy settings to allow sharing in a friend’s app were completely open to the tactic and had no real way of limiting the information that could be shared.
The information gained from this Facebook app was allegedly used to sway political behavior in the most recent US presidential race and the Brexit vote in the UK. Cambridge Analytica denies that the data was used in these ways.
“Thisisyourdigitallife” was removed from Facebook in 2015, but by then the damage had been done. When Facebook discovered what was being done with that data, in 2015, they demanded the destruction of that data. Cambridge Analytica said they had complied. According to the New York Times, though, the data is still very much in existence.
Cambridge Analytica also denies that they broke any of Facebook’s privacy rules, which may be technically true. This has opened the door for many to call for better oversight of social media platforms. Some are urging Facebook to update its policies and increase transparency in the way that permissions are granted. While security experts view this fiasco as proof that boundaries need to be set for third-party access on social media, Facebook claims that they were simply misled by Cambridge Analytica.
Chief security officer Alex Stamos said via Twitter that Dr. Kogan lied about how user data would be used in reference to the personality quiz and that as soon as they found out that the data had not been destroyed, Facebook began aggressively and actively pursuing its destruction. Stamos also clarifies multiple times that this incident does not qualify as a “breach,” but does grant that it was a violation of trust.
The Trump and Cruz campaigns deny any use of the data, although both had contracted Cambridge Analytica for their races. The Trump camp specifically states that the RNC was used to obtain voter data, not Cambridge Analytica.
Regardless of whether the incident was a breach of policy or just shady behavior on the part of Cambridge Analytica, British and US lawmakers have been harsh on Facebook. Many have berated the company for not informing users about the data that Cambridge Analytica had, or how it was being used. There should have been notifications and red flags along the way, rather than the carte blanche granted via friends’ permission settings. Others demand a better answer from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, as the company has been suspiciously quiet about the whole affair.
Republican Senator of Arizona, Jeff Flake, specifically called out Zuckerberg, saying that he needs to take responsibility for the data misuse, and “stop hiding behind his Facebook page.” Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts will be launching an investigation into the matter. In the UK, Damian Collins has called out Zuckerberg as needing to testify before a British quorum, investigating how the Brexit vote may have been influenced.