Just as we thought levels of public trust in tech business couldn’t get much lower, this week’s events around Facebook/Cambridge Analytica look certain to take trust down to new lows, as the data abuse story dominates all the headlines. Julian Blake reports.
When one of the big storytellers of our times describes the sorry saga unfolding this week around Facebook/Cambridge Analytica as “surely the story of the year, if not the decade”, we have had confirmation (as if we really need it) that this is no mere tech business tale.
JK Rowling is right that this is big, though the elements in this story are more akin to Black Mirror than Harry Potter. The manipulation of data. Dark and unseen psychological forces at play. A world not quite as it seems. Add to these the lies, the sleaze and the seemingly amoral pursuit of power, and you have a tale to make Charlie Brooker proud.
Given that more than two billion worldwide now use Facebook, this is also a story that resonates with people everywhere. It makes us question whether the tech giants can be trusted with our data at all.
With a major trust deficit already out there on data protection – as think tank Demos has reported among others – this story is the last thing that the industry needs.
Perhaps as worrying for Facebook, share values in the business tanked by 10% or $50bn, in just two days of trading on the NYSE. Mark Zuckerberg’s own personal value has fallen by a reported $5bn. Twitter was caught up too, with its share price also dropping 10%. Other tech firms look to have been tarred with the same brush.
For those who’ve been offline, or who have quit social media already, this is the essence of the story…
Last weekend, US and UK media – primarily the New York Times and The Guardian – reported that London-based data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested personal data from some 50m US Facebook profiles, almost all of it without consent.
That data was allegedly then deployed by Cambridge Analytica in its efforts to target swing state voters in the 2016 US presidential election, helping Trump supporters target social media campaigns to persuade voters not to support Hillary Clinton and back their client, Donald Trump, instead.
Cambridge Analytica had been created with the backing of US right-wing financier Robert Mercer, supported by Trump strategist and Breitbart alt-right news network chief Steve Bannon. The connection with the Trump campaign was clear, and CA has made no secret of that commercial relationship.
What has exploded the story into an international scandal has been the testimony of whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Wylie, a 28-year-old data scientist, told the Guardian about his role at Cambridge Analytica in its deployment of data it had obtained largely without consent to help sway opinion in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Cambridge Analytica is also alleged to have used data to target UK voters in the EU referendum in June 2016.
Wylie said Cambridge Analytica had set out to use people’s private and personal information to create psychological and political profiles – then target them with political ads designed to work on their psychological makeup. In the US, these campaign ads would sit outside of the officially funded and regulated Republican party campaigns.
Wylie said the data had been obtained not by Cambridge Analytica itself, but by a third party, the Cambridge University psychology researcher Aleksandr Kogan. In 2014 Kogan created a Facebook app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’, containing a personality quiz that would end with a personal prediction.
Around 270,000 US users signed up for the app. But, because of the way that Facebook’s app settings worked at the time, using Facebook Login meant that when you signed up, you were offering up not just your own data, but detailed information about your friends and family too.
That meant the app could access public profile information of the Facebook friends of the 270,000, whose likes, relationship status, location and more were viewable by anyone.
The multiplier effect of social media meant that the information on the 270,000 quickly expanded to provide information on 50m individuals, with their predicted personality scores. Wylie said this information was then used by Cambridge Analytica in its work for Trump.
Facebook has consistently maintained that Kogan’s gathering of the data in itself was not a breach, as at the time the information obtained as a result of the app login was within the scope of Facebook’s privacy guidelines: people who signed up for the app had done so willingly. The breach came for Facebook when Kogan allegedly passed that information on to Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook says that it learned about the data violation back in 2015, saying that it then demanded that all parties given the information had been destroyed. It turns out that this may well not have happened, and Wylie’s whistleblowing testimony certainly suggests otherwise.
Last Friday, March 16, the day before the NYT broke the first Cambridge Analytica story, Facebook announced that it was suspending both CA and its parent SCL from the platform. It also accused Kogan of lying and violating policies by passing on app data to third parties including Wylie.
The heat really turned up on Cambridge Analytica on Monday, with the airing by Channel 4 News of an undercover exposé of the firm, which showed chief executive Alexandra Nix apparently peddling his firm’s services to help in election campaigns across the world – including boasts that CA ran “all” of Trump’s digital campaign.
Nix’s other boasts included self-destructing emails to eliminate paper trails and running smear campaigns with sex workers. Following the airing of the footage, Nix was this week suspended by Cambridge Analytica. Nix, and Cambridge Analytica, deny any wrongdoing.
Kogan also denies wrongdoing. He appeared on BBC’s Today programme this morning, claiming that he had been made a scapegoat for Cambridge Analytica and Facebook itself. He said he had no idea his app’s data would be used in the Trump campaign.
It is not just Cambridge Analytica or Kogan that has questions to answer, of course. For most, it is the role of Facebook and its trustworthiness that really counts.
On the specifics of Cambridge Analytica, how thoroughly did Facebook investigate the breach back in 2015? Why didn’t it to more when it discovered the breach?
Facebook needs to assure its users that this could not happen again. Privacy policies around its app logins have changed since 2015, it is true. But they remain confusing and complex – and it’s still debatable whether people actually understand what they’re consenting to.
More fundamentally, of course, Facebook itself has access to way more information than the 50m victims of this data breach. It holds information on two billion people on the planet. It knows more about people than Cambridge Analytica can dream of. And it sells that knowledge to advertisers. Facebook’s entire business model is built on that.
Politicians on both sides of the pond now definitely want answers, with Facebook execs queued up to appear before committees in the UK and US alike. Earlier committee testimonies on fake news are being questioned, with UK MPs now demanding Mark Zuckerberg himself appears before them.
With how-to-quit-Facebook guides spreading faster than a meme in Miami, there is little doubt that the story is hitting hard. Instead of taking to Facebook to complain about Facebook (as often happens) many are reaching the conclusion that it’s time to quit social media altogether. The value exchange so many accepted suddenly seems like not such a great trade-off after all.
Could the story mark the beginning of the end of one the great social and business phenomena of our times? Already under pressure, could the Cambridge Analytica scandal fatally undermine public trust in Facebook?
For now, Facebook feels way too embedded in too many of our lives and businesses for the world to start abandoning it wholesale. It is also now too important to its advertisers, who are coming to rely on the very targeting at the centre of this storm. Its sheer ubiquity should allow it to weather the storm.
But this week’s events have shaken not just Facebook, but politicians who are belatedly realising the power and influence of the platform. They do most likely mean that, in the minds of regulators and public, the world’s biggest social media business will no longer be trusted to manage its own affairs, or our data.