It has not been a good year for Facebook. With allegations of ‘fake news’ sites being overwhelmingly shared on the platform in the time leading up to the 2016 elections, Facebook had taken to the drastic measure of preventing news sites from showing up on users’ news feeds. Zuckerberg hasn’t had much time for reprieve, however, with news trending that his multi-billion dollar platform has been embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
In this scandal, it has emerged that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign consultants had utilized private personal data of millions of users. Facebook employees had been misled by ‘researchers’, who had gone to utilize the wealth of information for Trump’s 2016 presidential election. Despite news to date accusing Russian operatives of subterfuge and exploitation, the organisation at the centre of the scandal is the UK-based Cambridge Analytica.
The firm had used millions of users’ personal data in order to optimise targetted advertisements. These included Trump’s victorious presidential campaign and the successful lobby in the UK Brexit referendum that very year.
Facebook has since revealed that it had indeed enjoined Cambridge Analytica to permanently delete the information. The latter firm confirms that it had complied – but only with the types of information specified by Facebook. It also added that it had obtained the information ‘legally and fairly’.
Cambridge Analytica is a UK-based firm, a subsidiary of parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories. It aims to aid campaigns in reaching out to potential voters through by aggregating profiles of voters, and creating simulations of voter patterns and behaviour. It then utilises specialised advertisements in order to target these users.
With “5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters”, Cambridge Analytica’s data aggregation efforts have encompassed most, if not practically the entirety of the United States.
Chief Data Officer Alex Tayer and Managing Director (CA Global Political) Mark Turnbull had also mentioned business ties in America, Africa, Mexico, Malaysia, Australia and China.
Cambridge Analytica had also been involved in Kenya’s latest election, that had ended in violence across the country. One-third of all voters reported misinformation and fake news against incumbent Uhuru Kenyata’s opponent, Raila Odinga, spread across the internet. In the video, MD Mark Turnbull remarks “it’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts”.
Despite Mark Turnbull claiming that it is against the policy of Cambridge Analytica to frame and spread fake news about their clients’ political opponents, CEO Alexander Nix soon after delineates ‘a long history’ at the company of doing such things. These include ‘sending girls’ to the opponents’ residences, offering to finance political campaigns in return for land deals, all while capturing video evidence of the corruption.
Nix adds that Cambridge Analytica has worked under the guise of students doing research, or even utilizing spies from other countries to obtain information.
CEO Alexander Nix has since been suspended, the firm claiming that his comments “do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation”.
The Board has suspended CEO Alexander Nix pending a full independent investigation. https://t.co/HV9Mb5eXIR
— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) March 20, 2018
What Has Cambridge Analytica Done?
In a statement by Facebook, Cambridge Analytica received user data from Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Kogan had allegedly created an app that offered predictions of users’ personalities, appearing as a research tool for psychologists. Facebook users had to log in, and provide access to their profiles, locations, preferences and friends’ data. However, Kogan had forwarded user data to Cambridge Analytica without consent from the users – which is against the platform’s rules. He has maintained that the app is a “very standard vanilla Facebook app”.
The chief strategist of the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon, had reportedly been the vice president and secretary of Cambridge Analytica prior to stepping down to run Trump’s campaign in August 2016. This potentially gave the campaign access to vital user data – phrases such as “drain the swamp” had been apparently tested to be successful in persuading voters. It had also potentially aided the Trump campaign in targetting specific users, allocating campaign stops and design speeches.
However, Cambridge Analytica’s activities were not confined to that of Bannon and Trump. Republican candidates Senator Ted Cruz and Ben Carson had also received assistance from the firm.
Where’s The Breach?
After a warning by Facebook three years ago Cambridge Analytica and Kogan had removed the data in question. However, according to Facebook, it had received reports that the company had not removed all user data. Christopher Wylie, an ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica and the whistleblower in question, had reported that his Facebook account had been suspended in a bizzare turn of events.
— Christopher Wylie (@chrisinsilico) March 18, 2018
So… Is Facebook Safe?
In what has been characterised to be one of the worst data leaks in the history of social networks, Facebook has found almost 50 million users’ data exposed, through the access granted by roughly 270,000 users who had adopted Kogan’s app.
However, Facebook maintains that Kogan had obtained all data legally and within stipulations, despite later misusing the data by leaking it to the company in question. Concerns remain about Facebook’s policy in granting individuals access to a wealth of user data, at the risk of nefarious intent, or even negligence.
Facebook has maintained that to call this scandal a “breach” is patently “false” – that users had “knowingly provided their information”, and that “no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked”.
What’s the Future?
With social media embroiled in the saga of fake news in recent months, it has never been clearer that the great influence and power these giants have enjoyed over its users have an ominous side to it.
It is time. #deletefacebook
— Brian Acton (@brianacton) March 20, 2018
The #deletefacebook campaign led by Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp (which was bought by Facebook) is probably the most drastic of measures. However, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s and COO Sheryl Sandberg’s absences painfully silent in the cacophony of the fall-out, this might be the best statement to make – US citizen or not, especially if you’re not a regular Facebook user, like myself.
If such drastic measures do not appeal to you, you should remove all ‘apps’ currently installed on your account, especially ones you do not access often. Observe all requests from app developers carefully. Facebook has prevented your friends’ data from being accessed by these developers since 2015, so perhaps it’s a little too late to correct that.
Facebook breach: This is a major breach that must be investigated. It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves. I've called for more transparency & accountability for online political ads. They say “trust us.” Mark Zuckerberg needs to testify before Senate Judiciary.
— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) March 17, 2018
The political fall-out has reached far and wide. Lawmakers and officials quickly demanded that Zuckerberg testify before Congress. Potential investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and several regulatory bodies loom over the giant. The EU’s discussion of tighter regulations and legislation for Facebook and other social media platforms might be catalysed by the recent developments, according to tweets by President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.
Update, 0419HRS +8hr GMT: Facebook Co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has released a statement after five days of silence.