Cambridge Analytica, often abbreviated to CA, is a privately held company that combines data mining and data analysis with strategic communication in order to influence “audience behavior”.
According to the company, they are able to analyze a huge amount of consumer data and using behavioral science, process this information in order to identify individuals that can be the subject of targeted marketing.
It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent's company SCL Group in order to participate in American politics and it’s here that a current controversy is plaguing the company.
This past week, revelations came to light over a large scale harvesting of over 50 million Facebook profiles by a company called Global Science Research (GSR)
The man responsible for this, Aleksandre Kogan, created an app that would offer a personality test to American citizens in return for money. This app would then collect all of this user's data as well as the profiles of their entire friend group.
Aleksandre Kogan formed a deal with Cambridge Analytica, to share this information--which was then allegedly incorporated into building a powerful tool that would be used to predict and influence voter choices in the 2016 presidential election.
Christopher Wylie, the Canadian whistleblower that previously worked for Cambridge Analytica, has opened up about common practices that would happen in the company.
He has called the firm a “full-scale propaganda machine” and made contradictory claims to Cambridge Analytica CEO, Alexander Nix, that company does in fact make use of personal data from Facebook in the work that they do--stating that Cambridge Analytica was actually built on the use of Facebook data.
In response to these accusations, Facebook has suspended CA and other key players from the site, whilst it carries out its investigation. Facebook has denied that there was a “data breach” and state that it had given permission to Kogan to use the data, however in providing said information with Cambridge Analytica, he broke the terms of the license.
They claim that the issue was brought to light in 2015 and requested that the data be destroyed and also removed the app from their site at this time.
In response to the security concerns of personal data, Facebook’s value has plummeted by $30bn
Channel 4 reporters, disguised as potential clients, went undercover to expose the practices of Cambridge Analytica.
In a series of meetings we can see CEO Alexander Nix, Managing Director Mark Turnbull, and Chief Data Officer Alex Tayler, give accounts of the tactics they would implement in order to influence voters and sway public opinion.
In one of the said meetings, Mark Turnbull is on record as showing his concerns with Cambridge Analytica as a company being attached to the hypothetical situation that the journalists had posed. He states that if they were to do business, it would be under a different name so that Cambridge Analytica wouldn’t be connected.
One of the most shocking points made was that in order to influence voters correctly, subtlety had to be used with regards to the information being presented, so no one would become suspicious of the propaganda they were being fed.
“It has to happen without anyone thinking ‘That’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda the next question in ‘who’s put that out?
In recent press releases, Cambridge Analytica has denied the accusations and claim that they fully comply with Facebook’s terms of service and are currently in touch following its recent statement to suspend the company as a whole, as well as key players.
They have also gone on to say:
“Cambridge Analytica strongly denies the claims recently made by the New York Times, the Guardian and Channel 4 News…
...In 2014 we recieved Facebook data and derivatives of Facebook data from another company, GSR, that we engaged in good faith to legally supply data for research. After it subsequently became known that GSR had broken its contract with Cambridge Analytica because it had not adhered to data protection regulation, Cambridge Analytica deleted all the Facebook data and derivatives, in cooperation with Facebook”
If you haven’t heard, new data protection regulations are being enforced that aim to stop companies from using private information without the user’s consent. If a company is found to break these regulations, then it would be subject to hefty fines.
The alleged practices of GSR and Cambridge Analytica are examples of practices that would be in breach of these new laws.
User data cannot be mined and sold to other companies and especially not data of those who haven’t agreed to it, e.g. the friends of the users that took the personality test offered by GSR in the first place.
In order to be fully compliant and in line with GDPR regulations, there are many things that companies will be required to do in terms of storing and processing information.
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May 25th, 2018 will see these new data protection regulations come into play and will hopefully stop instances of the mishandling of personal data from large organizations.
There have been a multitude of various instances over the last 5-10 years that show just how profitable your personal data is and the lengths companies will go to obtain it.
As for the outcome of the Cambridge Analytica situation, only time will tell. Facebook sent auditors to ensure that Cambridge Analytica wasn’t hiding any user data, but the ICO has forced them to pull out as it could undermine the integrity of the investigation.
Hopefully, this situation will be a wake-up call for all companies about the potential impact that not following protocol will have on their business and we can have a much safer and regulated set of guidelines that will stop our private information from being used without our consent.