Everyone’s talking about... dodgy data dealings

29th March 2018

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s dodgy data dealings

Well, where to start with this one? The beginning, perhaps.

In 2014, Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan published a seemingly innocuous Facebook personality quiz—the kind of mindless multiple-choice form that ends up telling you you’re more cat than dog.

Just shy of 300,000 people took part, in turn agreeing to hand over their Facebook user data in search of the elusive answer. Significant, but some way off the amount of information you’d need in order to influence, say, the US presidential race or the EU referendum.

Yet, according whistle-blower Christopher Wiley – whose pink hair was splashed across the Observer in mid-March as journalist Carole Cadwalladr broke an incredible exclusive – that’s not quite the end of the story.

Indeed, Wiley alleges Kogan exploited a Facebook loophole to not only collect data from those who took the test, but every single one of their friends, too. That’s around 50 million people.

More worrying still, Kogan allegedly sold that data to Cambridge Analytica, a British data analytics firm. After the Observer’s splash, Channel 4 released a documentary showing Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix boasting about his company’s role in everything from fake news to influencing elections.

Cadwalladr told BBC Radio 4’s Media Show that the Observer decided to reveal the scoop to Channel 4, with the broadcaster spending close to a year applying for permission to conduct its undercover sting operation. The New York Times was also granted access to Cadwalladr’s research.

Wiley has appeared in front of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for a televised interview, while the Government has asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Nix to provide evidence to defend themselves from the accusations.

Since the allegations, Facebook has repeatedly defended itself. It suspended Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, from its platform, before setting out a six-point plan to tackle ‘data misuse’.

But Wiley alleged that the company took limited steps to recover the data exposed by Kogan, having been first made aware of it four years ago. Facebook itself has now acknowledged that the data may still be in Cambridge Analytica’s possession, despite requesting it be deleted in 2014. It then announced changes to make it easier for users to find data privacy settings.

Trust in the platform has certainly taken a battering. It remains to be seen how this will affect people’s willingness to share data—and the knock-on impact that will have on the brands and businesses that rely on it.

In fact, Facebook was dealt a fresh blow right before the Easter break when journalists started downloading the data the social media company stores, raising yet more issues around the depth of its access to user information.

All said, a pretty tough month for Zuckerberg and friends.