Who is Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics firm. What does that mean? Good question. I’m going to do my best to define them without making them sound too much like a shadowy government organisation that you might find in an episode of The X-Files written by George Orwell.
Cambridge Anayltica started in 2013 as an offshoot of the SCL Group – a military and government contractor that did all sorts of things like food security research, counter-narcotics efforts, and helping out political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica started with $15 million worth of backing from Republican (American conservative) Robert Mercer. They helped out Trump’s campaign to become President. It markets itself as providing consumer research, targeted advertising and other data-driven activities for political and corporate clients.
What did they do?
They’re accused of obtaining data from 50 million Facebook users, and doing so in such a way that deceived both Facebook and its users. About 250,000 people downloaded an app from Cambridge University that involved a personality test. They were assured the app was for academic purposes only. They signed in with their Facebook details, and opened up their data, their friends data, and their friends of friends data. Cambridge Analytica allegedly used this data to build a system that targeted US voters with personalised political ads. A whistle blower, Christopher Wylie, stepped forward: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
Worse, it’s almost certain that these personalised ads weren’t based on truth or political reality. In the most explosive corner of this investigation, a couple of British television reporters went undercover to talk to Cambridge Analytica executives. The two executives boasted that their regular practices include entrapping rival political candidates in fake bribery set-ups, and hiring prostitutes to seduce them. The CEO of the company, Alexander Nix, is recorded telling reporters: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they’re believed.”
Cambridge Analytica has links to not only the Trump vote, but the Brexit vote too. There are enough whistleblowers and ongoing investigations to now suggest that Cambridge Analytica is an incredibly well-funded and effective dealer in fake news.
Has Facebook broken the law?
That’s one of the investigations that’s ongoing. Billions of dollars have disappeared from their stock market valuation. Apple CEO Tim Cook was said the situation is dire, and that the ability to access personal data should not exist. (Unlike Google and Facebook, Apple doesn’t use data collection or advertising to make all their money – they’re funded by their retail arm, selling computers and phones.) Just yesterday, Facebook published full-page ads across British and US newspapers apologising for the stuff-up. Signed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the ad reads: “This was a breach of trust, and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time. We’re now taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Concerns about how Facebook uses personal data certainly isn’t new. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the hashtag ‘deleteFacebook’ has cropped up yet again. As users are deleting the app off their phone, they’re discovering the true reach of Facebook’s data mining. Trying to delete your Facebook account is hard – the company will push you towards ‘deactivation’ – allowing them to hold on to your data. When users do push forward to delete their data, the company suggests “You may want to download a copy of your info from Facebook.” Many users have been surprised to find that these zip files contain data on receiving and sending text messages and phone calls.
All of this business has brought back an infamous chat exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and one of his friends way back in 2004, when he was just a college kid at Harvard starting Facebook. Zuckerberg was 19.
Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask.
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They “trust me”
Zuck: Dumb fucks.
Is Australia affected?
You may be pleased to know that apparently Facebook approached our major political parties in 2016, offering a powerful data-matching tool. The Liberal Party rejected the offer, fearing it would break privacy laws. The Labor Party apparently did use the platform, although they’re not saying for how long, or to what extent. They’re saying they certainly didn’t break any laws and Facebook was one of many tools that they used during their political campaign.
If an Australian user signs up to Facebook, they’re agreeing to terms outlined by Facebook Ireland Limited (such an arrangement may save them tax dollars). This means Australian regulators have to go through a global effort to figure out if Aussies have been caught up in the latest breach. It’s similar to what happened a few years ago with the Ashley Madison company, which is incorporated in Canada.
Should I be worried?
Well, that’s up to you. I’m signed up to Facebook because I need it to promote my work. I, like this Sydney Morning Herald columnist, also occasionally find the advertisements and articles that Google and Facebook put in front of me as genuinely helpful. I like them. The algorithm and data-matching does actually work. I’m not particularly worried about being shown fake news because, well, I run a news website myself and spend a lot of time reading across multiple media outlets.
Still, there’s certainly been no better time to leave the platform if you don’t get value out of it, or if you think it’s twisting your perception of political realities. This helpful guide talks about how to protect your data or delete yourself from Facebook entirely.
This is an ongoing investigation with global implications. We’ll keep you updated. Back at the end of the week with the news summary.
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