Cambridge Analytica & The Future of Facebook

As the fallout from Facebook’s tangle with Cambridge Analytica and the ensuing scandal widens, users are struggling to gain a sense of the series of events leading up to its exposition, let alone what the future holds for the 2.2 billion strong platform.

Justice and the Senate hearings in the United States may move slowly but the Internet does not. And neither does the European Union, whose newly-rolled-out General Data Protection Policy regulations go into effect May 25th, 2018 and are intended to protect all European Union citizens from privacy and data breaches in an increasingly data-driven world.

What happened? Who was involved? Why does it matter? What’s next? Here’s a Dummies’ Guide to the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal, as it stands so far.

Where it All Began

Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, SCL Elections, GSR, the Trump Campaign — if your head is spinning, worry not. The acronyms are not important but the series of connections between these “players” are. Let’s take a look.

Five years ago, in 2013, a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan created an app called, “This is Your Digital Life”, which was structured like a personality quiz (you know the type: “Which Disney star that died are you?”) and aimed at Facebook’s platform of users. Users would log in and respond to the survey — but here’s the caveat: they would also get paid $4 for their participation.

Weird, right? It gets only more so.

This “survey” was not just a digital form created to capture responses. It required actual installation of the app in order to be accessed — and it was only installed, according to Zuckerberg’s status update, by around 300,000 users.

So how did that number scale to a whopping 87 million users’ data being breached, harvested and used by Cambridge Analytica?

Simple. If you’ve ever used Facebook ads, you’ll know that, in the granular creation of an ad, you have the chance to “target” audiences that are “Friends” of the users who have “Liked” your page.

The same holds true for this (and any) app’s reach: these 300,000 installations gave Kogan and Cambridge Analytics access, through a proverbial or digital “grapevine”, to 87 million associated users who were “friends” or “connections” of the original set.

Raw data from these profiles included pretty much anything and everything users choose to share, including their employment status and place of work, location, relationship status, music they love, books they read, plus information about other apps installed and used.

Putting all the pieces together

Cut to 2015: Through the hands of this university research and app developer Kogan, this data made its way to a London-based, political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Kogan’s defense in response to the funnelling of data was that there were no violations of ethics because the work was primarily commercial and his contract was with Cambridge Analytics, not the University.

A secondary defense he also seems to come up with is that he cannot be held responsible for Facebook’s decisions. In a quote to CBS, Kogan explains,

“It seems crazy now. But this was a core feature of the Facebook platform for years. This was not a special permission you had to get. This was just something that was available to anybody who wanted it who was a developer.”

In other words, he feels he is being unfairly targeted and made the face of this data breach, a conclusion that’s not entirely unwarranted, given that Facebook was already wary of the larger issue of app access in 2014.

Now, here’s where the water gets murky: The parent company of Cambridge Analytica? A British PR firm with a sort of spotty reputation known as SCL Group or “SCL Elections”.

So if SCL was running along, doing its own thing, who created Cambridge Analytica? That would be one Steve Bannon, who approached Robert Mercer, a traditionally conservative “megadonor” for funding and promptly appointed Alexander Nix as CEO.

The same Steve Bannon, for those keeping score, who become Trump’s “senior advisor” before promptly being fired in August 2017.

Through SCL, Cambridge Analytica worked on the Trump campaign, possibly supplying this information about users’ behaviours, preferences and predictions to, ostensibly, formulate ads, offers and messaging surrounding the election with laser-focused specificity

And though none of this has been confirmed, it’s not an entirely illogical speculation of what could have been done with the data, since it definitely has this potential.

“Breach of Trust” from a Breach of Data

That’s what Zuckerberg and Facebook called it as the next few weeks involved responses to media, outreach to users and 10 hours of answering questions in the United States Senate over the course of two days.

Facebook’s 2014 caution and changes to its app platform would seem to say that they were quite aware of the loophole that existed in its API. Their policy strictly sets out that developers may not share data without people’s consent. Bizarrely, Kogan, speaking to British Labour’s Paul Farrelly, claims that,

“I just don’t believe that’s their policy. If somebody has a document that isn’t their policy, you can’t break something that isn’t really your policy. I would agree my actions were inconsistent with the language of this document, but that’s slightly different than what I think you’re asking.”

In 2015, Facebook learned of this improper use and commercial sharing and asked Cambridge Analytica and Kogan to cease using their services as well as demanded that all data culled and harvested be deleted. CA formally certified they did.

And they entirely lied.

In 2018, on the back of Zuckerberg’s announcement to Facebook’s changes in its platform to demonstrate a bias towards “people and connections in the News Feed”, and a leaning away from advertisers, the social media giant learned, quite definitively, through Guardian journalists, NYT reports and Channel 4, of Cambridge Analytica’s blatant lie.

Facebook’s proposed steps and possible changes to the platform

In a more immediate sense, this is what Facebook claims they’re doing to follow up and respond to the crisis unfolding right now.

But what about possible changes in the pipeline to the platform?

First off, Facebook’s has changed its service and data policy. The “Privacy shortcuts menu bar” and an “Access Your Information” portal that Zuckerberg proposes and alludes to above, is a big part of the rollout changes. Obviously, there are also now major restrictions on how third-party apps can access user data.

Andrew Bosworth, the company’s VP of VR says,

“Yes developers can receive data that helps them provide better experiences to people, but we don’t make money from that directly and have set this up in a way so that no one’s personal information is sold to businesses.”

Secondly, Facebook revealed that, through its messaging service, it has always been monitoring the content of private messages users send to each other. It looks for “prohibited content” such as ideas about ethnic cleansing or possible child pornography, links with viruses, etc., and prevents these from going through.

To be clear, Facebook is not using this for ad retargeting, simply to “stop abusive behaviour”.

Thirdly, Facebook also has a tighter control over the ads that users see, in addition to the changes rolled out in January 2018. As part of this, there is a new “personalized experience” trend, where users can customize the posts they see as well as the Groups, Friends, and Pages suggested.

In some ways, all the moves Facebook makes right now are a form of damage control. The platform is already being investigated by the U.S., the U.K., Australia and the FTC. It has already faced heavy fines in France. It’s already losing money. And though Facebook is already one company with WhatsApp and Oculus, the massive messaging app’s former owner is already calling for users to delete Facebook.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Williamson is the Company Director of Digital Marketing Adelaide. He keeps busy doing what he enjoys most – talking. He has a passion for social media and all things digital marketing.

Matt is an internet entrepreneur, social media expert, multiple business owner and digital marketer who specialises in assisting businesses to generate more revenue via the power of online advertising and digital marketing. Matt regularly speaks at events as a keynote speaker focusing on digital marketing & social media.

View Matt’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewdjwilliamson