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What Does the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook Data Scandal Mean for You?

Wednesday 21 March 2018

9 minute read

By Sarah Burns

Tens of millions of Facebook user profiles were harvested to build models that would exploit the information in their profiles to predict and influence choices in the 2016 US Presidential Election.

The news came to light last week as whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, unveiled to the Observer “how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.” (Source: The Guardian)

The Observer’s weekend splash revealed specifically that in 2014, 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested by UK-based academic, Aleksandre Kogan and his company Global Science Research.

He gathered the information through an app that collected the details of Americans who were paid to take a personality test, but it also gathered the data of those people’s Facebook friends. (Source: The Guardian)

Kogan then had a deal with Cambridge Analytica to share the data they gathered with them, this being a violation of Facebook’s rules, as they made clear in a statement last week, below.

Christopher Wylie, who previously worked for Cambridge Analytica, was quoted in the explosive revelations as saying:

“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.”

The full scale of the data leak of 50 million Americans wasn’t previously disclosed and until now, Facebook hadn’t acknowledged the breach.

In fact, the New York Times unveiled last week, “Interviews with a half-dozen former employees and contractors, and a review of the firm’s emails and documents, have revealed that Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of the trove.”

Facebook has confirmed in a statement just last Friday – March 16, 2018 – that by late 2015, the social media giant found that information had been harvested on an “unprecedented” scale.

But Facebook failed to alert users and only took limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.

Facebook is continuing to update its stance on the data scandal, as it reviews the way in which data is used and shared by app creators, updates can be found here.

The latest update is sure to shock many users, as CIA whistleblower, Edward Snowdon, stepped into the ogoing debate, by suggesting Facebook is a “surveillance company”.

Edward Snowdon’s tweets on the subject include:

An ongoing debate surrounds whether the app’s data wasn’t just used in Trump’s presidential campaign win but also to boost the Brexit campaign here in the UK.

Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, told the culture select committee last month, that Cambridge Analytica “did not work with” Leave.EU on the Brexit campaign. (Source: The Guardian)

The Electoral Commission is investigating what role Cambridge Analytica played in the EU referendum and the data scandal is just one focus of an inquiry into data and politics by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Where does the data scandal leave you?

Such a data scandal brings data protection and online privacy to the forefront of public discussions, raising awareness and debate about the information we share online and what we should do to best protect ourselves from data hacks and the exploitation of our personal data.

Coming at a time of changes to data protection laws across the EU - including us - it's crucial that we debate and discuss what we share online and how big data companies - Facebook, Google et al - use and protect the information we share.

If you're concerned - or fascinated - by this latest data scandal, we will be sharing updates on Twitter.

Find out more about GDPR and what it means for your organisation in our recent article. 

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