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The Cambridge Analytica scandal seems overblown, but Facebook could still be in trouble

Data privacy

Facebook has suspended a couple of data analytics companies for violating its platform policies, but that didn’t stop the story from exploding over the weekend.

A Cambridge University lecturer specialising in neuroscience named Aleksandr Kogan used a Facebook app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ to access information about the 270,000 people that downloaded it. While that all abided by Facebook’s rules, passing that information on to data analytics firm Cambridge Analytics didn’t, which led to Facebook removing the app in 2015 and requesting Kogan and CA destroy the data, which they apparently said they did.

But a few journalists subsequently kept digging into the matter and concluded the app had also been able to get hold of information about the friends of people who had downloaded it according to privacy settings that allowed it. The result was that Kogan/CA allegedly got hold of the private information of over 50 million people.

Over the weekend both The Guardian in the UK and The New York Times in the US broke the story, with the added spice of a claim that the data was used by the Trump Presidential campaign to influence voters prior to the 2016 US general election and maybe even to influence the UK Brexit vote. A key source for both stories is Christopher Wylie, who worked for CA at the time.

Wylie is now being positioned as a whistleblower and has provided documents confirming the 2015 sequence of events. The NYT is reporting it as a data breach, as is the Guardian, which also refers to it as data harvesting on an unprecedented scale. Facebook has publicly rejected claims of a data breach on the grounds that everyone who signed up to the app gave consent to have their data accessed. CA has also published its initial defence.

There is now a media feeding frenzy focusing on two main areas: the implications for Facebook and the implications for the Presidential and possibly also the Brexit elections. The former angle looks set to run for some time and could have serious implications for Facebook, and also the broader social media and data privacy debates. The latter seems like a bit of a desperate attempt to mitigate election results by publications known to be hostile to both outcomes.

Because this story has exploded and also has direct political implications Facebook is likely to come under a higher level of scrutiny than ever from politicians and regulators. Its mechanisms for disseminating user data will be picked apart and, presumably, significantly tightened. Its handling of this specific affair will be very closely studied and, even it can demonstrate it did nothing wrong, it’s likely to face big fines just because the shake-down will be too tempting to turn down.

Complaints about targeted political campaigning over social media, however, seem disingenuous. Why is it OK to spend millions on TV and online advertising, to use traditional direct marketing techniques, but not to profile and target Facebook users? Politicians and their parties are merely brands and their target market is swing voters. If it can be proved that the Trump campaign knew this data was dodgy then that will be an issue, but otherwise all’s fair in love and politics.

Twitter, inevitably, has got itself in a lather, with many tweeters doing their usual thing of appropriating the story as proof that, once more, they’re right about everything. But as ever among the dogmatic background noise there is some interesting discussion. We’ve included a brief selection underneath the piece.

The fundamental issue underlying this story is what companies like Facebook are able to do with the information they have on us. The digital economy has fairly detailed demographic information on all of us and will use it to try to sell us stuff. People seem OK with that but are far less comfortable with being sold ideas. A good outcome would be for all accumulators of such data to be compelled to offer far better controls and notifications about how our data is used.


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