News broke late last night revealing how a startup data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, harvested profiles of millions of Facebook users in what is being termed the company’s “biggest ever data breach.” The analytics firm used this data to build a powerful program to predict and influence voter choices.
By now, a lot has already been reported on how the biggest social networking platform was used by politicians and their wealthy backers in the last few years to sow civic disruption and potentially to influence election results. Whether they managed to influence voters is a debate that will possibly never end. However, the whistleblower’s story and Facebook’s press release confirm how the company tried to push this incident under the rug instead of informing users who were affected by this biggest data breach.
What exactly happened: 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested to “target their inner demons”
The data monster is apparently not only interested in collecting data for itself, but it also enables others to do the same. According to a whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to obtain this data and helped found the controversial Cambridge Analytica, the firm “exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” and “built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.”
This data was collected through thisisyourdigitallife app, which was built by academic Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University. “Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use,” the Guardian reported.
However, the story here isn’t how this data was used. After all the firm was paid by its backers to do exactly what it did. The problem here is how Facebook, the biggest social network, chose to stay silent and not inform the affected users. [Those interested in information on the whistleblower, how this data was verified – which has been confirmed by Facebook itself – and information on key players linked to Cambridge Analytica and GSR can head over to the NYT.]
Facebook failed to alert users & did close to nothing to secure data – why voter influence isn’t the biggest story here
The biggest revelation isn’t how this data was used to influence voters and polarize debates on hot topics, the problem is Facebook’s silence on the matter until it was pushed by the whistleblower who made the details public. While Uber and Equifax have attracted much of the user anger over delayed data breaches, Facebook appears to have done worse.