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Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the 50 Million Users

I use Facebook. I use it to connect with family and friends, follow particular issues I’m interested in, and to participate in the Cambridge community via the Cambridge Grapevine. You’re probably reading this blog via Facebook right now. But recently we’ve learned that our trust may have been breached and that unscrupulous international companies have been paid to use loosely guarded personal information to manipulate political campaigns, including (shudder) the Trump Presidential Campaign. Like me, you might be understandably concerned about this without having a good handle on what happened, how it happened, and what it should mean for us as Users going forwards. So, I’ve done some research…

Here’s a basic rundown of what happened:

In 2014 a company called Cambridge Analytica based in London paid a Psychology Professor called Aleksandr Kogan to create an App in the form of a Facebook personality quiz. This quiz was voluntarily taken by 270,000 Facebook Users, but the App also harvested data (personal information) from both the Users who took it and all of their Facebook Friends. In total, 50 Million Users. Kogan handed this data over to Cambridge Analytica who were paid to attempt to use this data to target potential voters in the 2016 US Presidential Campaign with messages specific to their particular personality traits. Now by all accounts this plan didn’t really work out as intended. The data turned out to be only as helpful as the existing data that the campaign had and didn’t end up being used very extensively at all. And in fact Facebook claims that they were (falsely) assured that the data was deleted 2016, and that  they now do not allow Apps to access data from the friends of Users who ostensibly accept the conditions of data harvesting Apps.

The media attention this story has generated is more about the trust that Facebook Users have in company in which they share a wide range of personal information. It’s not just your name and birthday; it’s everything that you Like and read and click on, or even your call and messaging logs. And it’s not just political campaigns. You might have noticed that anything you show a mild interest in on Facebook will start appearing on your Feed as advertising. Facebook has promised to follow up on data that was collected during the period before their improved privacy rules came into force and that they will be reviewing the data collection of all of the apps on Facebook, particularly those that collect a lot of data on Users.

Here are my references: ars TechnicaVoxThe GuardianTime

You can edit your privacy and advertising settings and view the data files that Facebook has on you but many people consider this too difficult so in my next post I will explain exactly what I think you should do and how to do it.