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What happened with Cambridge Analytica?

This enabled the mass collection of personal data, which eventually led to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, to collect vast amounts of personal information and use it to attempt to sway voters.

By Eimer Mcauley

Thu 09 Jul 2020

5 min read

Cambridge Analytica tractor getting personal information from Facebook's private data collection

Cambridge Analytica. It’s difficult to discuss how personal data should and shouldn’t be handled without mentioning what happened in 2018. But what exactly did happen, and what's changed?

What exactly happened?

Personal data as a concept entered public consciousness in 2018. But, it was being mined and misused through apps to influence people's decisions long before that: from your choice of pet food to political party. Back in 2010 Facebook launched ‘Open Graph’. Open Graph is a platform that enables external developers to reach Facebook users and their personal data - as well as the personal data of their friends - through mobile apps.

This enabled the mass collection of personal data, which eventually led to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, to collect vast amounts of personal information and use it to attempt to sway voters. They were eventually exposed, and given a huge fine of $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission.

The now infamous scandal of 2018 sparked a global data misuse debate, and resulted in the coining of the phrase 'digital gangsters' in the UK Parliament report on the issue. On the brighter side, it has also since sparked a new level of awareness about data, and triggered the arrival of many new data protection laws .

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How did they collect personal information?

Third parties, unregulated by Facebook, collected the personal information on Facebook's users. This included their gender, educational background, political beliefs, relationship status and even how often they were online. Particularly when taken together, this data is far from impersonal, rather, it can reveal a huge amount about us.

In 2013 Aleksandr Kogan, a data scientist, created a psychological quiz app, called 'thisisyourdigitallife'. Through it, he was able to collect the data of direct users and their “friends”. Through doing so, Kogan undoubtedly understood and benefitted from the personal nature and value of, the data he was able to collect.

So how does Cambridge Analytica come into the picture?

Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm established by political mega donors Rebekah and Robert Mercer, at the behest of Steve Bannon, who later became chief strategist to Donald Trump. Bannon himself took a central role as the Vice President of the company, working under CEO Alexander Nix.

This is where the names get a little confusing. ‘Cambridge Analytica’ was in fact operating as a shell company for the 'SCL Group': a private British behavioural research and political PR company that used data mining and data analysis on its audiences.

Andrew Prokop, Senior Political Correspondent at Vox, reported that the SCL Group described its services as “psychological warfare” and “influence operations”. However, in explosive reports in both The New York Times and The Guardian, former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistle-blower Christopher Wylie revealed how the company targeted people with political messages and misinformation during the 2016 presidential election.

This is where data scientist and Cambridge University researcher Alexsandr Kogan re-enters the frame. Working for Cambridge Analytica, he designed a third party quiz app that enabled them to access Facebook’s stored data on 87 million users, and in turn utilised that data to the advantage of the 2016 Trump electoral campaign.

That’s when the media coverage snowballed.

How did the media coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal evolve into a global response?

Britain’s Information Commissioner seized Cambridge Analytica’s servers, 73 external experts were called to answer 4,350 questions from MPs in the UK Parliament’s investigation, and the value of Facebook shares plummeted.

Yet the social media behemoth did not fully co-operate on home soil or in the UK, leading Jason Kent, the chief executive of Digital Content Next to declare that 'Facebook is not just bigger than any nation state on Earth, with 1.74 billion users and plays a pivotal role in their elections, but that it’s completely out of control'. The UK Parliament’s final report was in keeping with this sentiment, stating that beyond not co-operating, Facebook had treated the Parliament’s investigation with 'contempt'.

When Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a year later, he admitted that he didn’t know at what point his company became aware of Cambridge Analytica’s operations, to which she said: 'This was the largest data scandal with respect to your company, that had catastrophic impacts on the 2016 election. You don’t - you don’t know?'.

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What were the penalties?

The UK Information Commissioner then issued Facebook with their maximum fine of £500,000, and warned that 'democracy is under threat', and called for an 'ethical pause' on micro-targeting political ad campaigns.

In America, alongside ordering Facebook to pay a record-breaking $5 billion penalty, the Federal Trade Commission enforced new restrictions on Facebook, and a modified corporate structure, that aims to hold them accountable for decisions made that affect the privacy of their users.

However, many critics argued that the fine did not go far enough. While it was higher than any fine of its nature given before, Facebook made $15 billion in the first three months of 2019 alone.

Why are we still talking about Cambridge Analytica and data theft two years on?

Because, according to Forbes, and Facebook itself, it’s still happening. As Forbes journalist Michael Nunez summed up, 'The companies sweeping changes have been largely ineffective'.

A year on from the scandal, Facebook admitted that roughly 100 developers may have improperly accessed user data. This means that revelations about Cambridge Analytica only exposed one small fraction of what is, in reality, an entire data market largely out of the reach of regulatory authorities.

How has society's view of data been affected?

Two years on, society's relationship with data has permanently changed.

Cambridge Analytica has shut down, and 'personal data' isn’t such a strange term to hear in everyday conversation. We’ve become accustomed to requests about our data when we visit websites, and being asked to click 'accept', or 'adjust' or 'deny' on pop-up privacy settings.

In an age of micro-targeting and widespread political misinformation, we need to understand how our data is being used before we click 'accept', know where it is being stored, and how to get it back.

Final thoughts

At Rightly, we’re working towards closing the ‘transparency deficit’. That is, the huge difference between what companies know about their data practices and the way that the industry operates, versus what consumers and policy makers typically know.

We’re working hard to make data fairer and more transparent for all involved, and that includes you. You should be able to easily find out what’s happening to your personal data, and ensure that it’s handled your way. You can do this by sending subject access requests, or many other types, to find out where yours is and how to get it back.

Send a request for free today

As ever, we’re here to listen, share ideas, and help. You can reach us via social media @rightlydata, or get in touch.

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