Paul Grewal, VP & Deputy General Counsel at Facebook, released a statement on 16 March to provide the community with information regarding the claims that the company was involved in a data breach that occurred in late 2015. According to the statement, the company learned in 2015 that Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, violated the Platform Policies by leaking data to third parties, including Cambridge Analytica and Eunoia Technologies, Inc. The statement – along with the update issued on March 17 – indicates that the company wants to distance itself from the parties involved in the collection of data. Although the company is making big statements now, there is room to believe that Facebook knew what was going on all along and simply chose to ignore the issues.
The statement issued by the company’s VP indicates that Dr. Aleksandr Kogan had developed an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” to gain access to Facebook users. The app was introduced to them as a research app that would help psychologists, and some 270,000 users had downloaded it. Users were lured in to download the app because they were promised to be paid to fill out a personality survey. When the survey was sent, underlying information – such as the city of the user or the content they had liked – was revealed as well. Along with that, data from the profiles of the user’s “Friends” was extracted as well. In fact, Christopher Wylie, who worked at Cambridge Analytica, has recently revealed that 300 records would be taken on average with every survey sent. Within just a couple of months, 50 million records were collected, and using a special algorithm, the data could be used to determine how users in the U.S. would vote.
This information came after it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica was linked to the election campaign of Donald Trump, as well as the Brexit referendum. The investigation by the Observer revealed that Cambridge Analytica is, in fact, a company owned by the U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer, who is an active Trump supporter. Furthermore, when the company was using the app and surveys to record data, it was led by Steve Bannon, who is another important figure involved in Trump’s election campaign. Cambridge Analytica has been involved in dubious activity many times before. Recent reports by BBC and Chanel 4 News, revealed that the company had been involved in more than 100 campaigns all around the world. In Europe, Cambridge Analytica was involved in the elections that were held in Italy and Czech Republic. The Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) – who is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica – claims to have participated in the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as well. Other campaigns include those in Kenya, Mexico, Malaysia, and India.
Christopher Wylie told the Observer that Cambridge Analytica “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.” He also told Channel 4 News that he “played a pivotal role in setting up a company that [...] has done a lot of harm to the democratic process.” The information provided by Wylie – who left the company in 2014 – has certainly helped the organizations and parties that are now involved in the investigation. After learning about the ordeal in 2015, Facebook removed the app, and then instructed the parties involved to delete all data. Now, the company claims it has suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform, and that it has initiated its own investigations into the matter. Separately, investigations are being performed by the British Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission in the UK, as well as the U.S. authorities.
The full extent of Facebook’s involvement in this mess is not yet clear, but it is obvious that the company, once again, has failed its community. Christopher Wylie revealed that the company did not follow up with him after he was approached with the request to delete the data that was recorded back in 2015. That means that the “offenders” were left to their own devices, and doing nothing can be the greatest offense. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, who, according to the Guardian, is involved in the investigation has said: “It has a legal obligation to inform regulators and individuals about this data breach, and it hasn’t. It’s failed time and time again to be open and transparent.” At the moment, the only thing that the company has done is severing the ties with the companies and individuals who were linked to the app and the action of recording and leaking data. It might be time for Facebook to take some responsibility and help out the investigators; otherwise, the reputation of the social networking platform could start to crumble.
BBC. March 20, 2018. Cambridge Analytica: The data firm’s global influence. BBC News.
Cadwalladr, C., Graham-Harrison, E. Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian.
Channel 4 News. March 19, 2018. Data, Democracy and Dirty Tricks: Cambridge Analytica Uncovered. Channel 4 News.
Grewal, P. March 16, 2018. Suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from Facebook. Facebook Newsroom.