If you ever doubted that data mining is big business, or wondered how influential it can be, the breaking scandal with Cambridge Analytica may be able to help.
Who is Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica is a British-owned company which specialises in analysis, mining and other data services. It was founded in 2013 as a subsidiary of SCL Group, a private behavioural research and communication, to handle its activities in the United States. Cambridge Analytica has been frequently used as a tool in political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica is part-owned by the family of wealthy hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, known for his conservative beliefs and activism.
What has Cambridge Analytica done?
Indeed, the campaigns it usually has been involved with have been for those of a conservative flavour. Cambridge Analytica initially became noteworthy in 2015 as the data analysis company working with the 2016 Presidential campaign of Ted Cruz, junior senator for the state of Texas who sought the nomination of the Republican party ticket. Later, after the withdrawal of Ted Cruz from the running for Republican nomination, Cambridge Analytica began a working partnership with the campaign of businessman Donald Trump, who went on to win the 2016 United States Presidential election as the Republican nominee.
Although primarily a US subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica also worked with the Leave.eu campaign for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union in the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, a campaign which was ultimately successful.
Executives of Cambridge Analytica further state that they have worked in Argentina, Czechia, India, Kenya and Nigeria.
What is the scandal?
As a data mining and analysis firm, Cambridge Analytica’s bread and butter is accessing raw demographic data, that of the potential voters in a political campaign, and use that to help the client in question and work on their campaign strategy. For example, a survey could reveal that the public want to discuss foreign relations thus Cambridge Analytica would help a client change focus onto foreign policy in order to secure votes.
It has been reported over the past week by The Guardian and The New York Times that Cambridge Analytica has been engaged in illegal and unethical practices when working with clients or discussing potential clients.
One of the gravest accusations levied against Cambridge Analytica is that they accessed the Facebook data of several millions of users without their permission. A further claim made is that Facebook has known about this data harvesting for over two years but not publicly done anything about it nor informed its users about these goings on. It is alledged that around 50 million users data was “acquired” during the 2016 Presidential election, during the time that Facebook is alleged to have known about this and remained blind to it. This story was first reported in 2015 when Camrbidge Analytica was still working for the Cruz campaign but only now has first-person testimony been able to reveal the full extent of the scandal.
Channel 4 News has revealed through a secret investigation that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Andrew Nix, has boasted about the “dirty tricks” it uses when dealing with opposition; claims such as trying to setup honey traps or attempting bribery. At the time of writing, Nix has been suspended by the board of directors awaiting an internal investigation.
Facebook claims to have had assurances from Cambridge Analytica that data had been erased but this is not supported by the claim of a former employee who has witnessed “hundreds of gigabytes” of data still outstanding.
Is it really so bad?
It depends on your perspective.
On the one hand, without sifting through the minutia of Facebook’s small print, it is fair to assume that being a registered member and agreeing to their terms and conditions allows Facebook to use their data as they see fit; whether it is selling it or using it to conduct internal research.
On the other hand, many will feel that it is the implicit consent given by Facebook which is of concern. Users are unaware that their data is being used by third parties. What compounds this is that in a polarising society many people will be extremely upset about their data potentially being used in aiding political campaigns which the user is actively against; using the scenarios given, a Democrat user’s data being used to aid the Republican cause or a Remainer’s data being used to aid the Leave campaign will leave a very sour taste in the mouth.
Of course, Facebook is free to sell user data so long as the selling of data does not contravene any laws but the allegations state that Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data without Facebook’s knowledge and it is only when Facebook became aware to the situation that they turned a blind eye to it.
It remains to be seen what will happen next for the executives involved in the decision making and whose responsibility it is but this is another chapter in people feeling under constant surveillance and that their privacy is being invaded. Keep your ears open for future developments on this one.