How huge Facebook data trove was used in Donald Trump US election campaign

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a British data firm partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, a billionaire American hedge fund manager and Republican donor.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Published: March 20, 2018 12:56:25 am
Facebook, Donald Trump, Trump presidential campaign 2016, Cambridge Analytica, data breach facebook, Cambridge Analytica data harvesting, social media, Christopher Wylie, Express explained Whistleblower Christopher Wylie provided details of the breach. Andrew Testa/NYT

Facebook’s shares tumbled about 5 per cent in the first few hours of trading Monday, as US stock markets reacted to media reports over the weekend that a political consultancy that worked on President Donald Trump’s campaign gained inappropriate access to data on 50 million Facebook users. The reports in The New York Times and The Observer were based on details provided by Christopher Wylie, a 28-year-old data analytics expert who helped found Cambridge Analytica — the firm at the centre of the alleged data breach — in 2013 and worked there till late 2014. EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova described as “horrifying” the reports that personal data of Facebook users “could be so easily mishandled and used for political purpose”. The UK said the allegations were “clearly very concerning”, while in the US, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers called for a hearing into the matter.

Who are Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a British data firm partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, a billionaire American hedge fund manager and Republican donor. The organisation has been drawing flak for its alleged role in influencing behaviour of voters in the 2016 presidential election campaign, and for helping the ‘Leave’ side in the Brexit referendum.

What has the organisation done?

The firm is alleged to have harvested data of tens of millions of Facebook users without permission in order to design a software to predict and influence people’s voting preferences.

From where did it collect the data?

In 2014, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at Cambridge University, was allegedly paid $800,000 by CA to develop an application, thisisyourdigitallife, to harvest data of Facebook users. Although the app was downloaded by 270,000 people (these people granted permission for data collection), it extracted personal information of each of the users’ friends without consent. Kogan then passed on all the data collected through his app to CA and other companies.

Was Facebook aware of the data breach?

Facebook said it removed the app in 2015, when the violations came to light for the first time. Shorty after the data leak story became public, Facebook’s lawyers claimed The Observer was making “false and defamatory” allegations and denied the harvesting of information was a “data breach”, as users had voluntarily downloaded the app. It also banned whistleblower Wylie and Cambridge Analytica from using its platform. However, according to a story published in The Guardian, Wylie is in possession of a letter written between June and August 2014 by Facebook lawyers “admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately.”

What kind of data were acquired by CA?

When the app was downloaded, Kogan had access not only to users’ basic information such as city of residence and details about friends, but also data from the profiles of their Facebook friends.

So, how was the data used by the firm?

Kogan’s firm Global Science Research (GSR) offered users small amounts of money to complete a survey on the condition they grant permission to access their personal details through Facebook. This helped GSR to build personality and psychological profiles of millions of people. The data were allegedly used by CA to tailor its political advertisements for a group of individuals, whose likings and interests were already known to them.

How did this help Donald Trump in his presidential election campaign?

CA seems to have exhibited a similar pattern in the 2016 US presidential election, when the firm worked for Trump. Under the guidance of Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director in 2016, CA performed a variety of services including designing target audiences for digital advertisements and fund-raising appeals, modelling voter turnout, buying $5 million in television ads and determining where Trump should travel to best drum up support.

However, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Trump-Russia collusion, reportedly believes the new revelations could help in determining the case. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mueller has requested CA to “turn over documents as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election”.

What has been Facebook’s response?

Facebook Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal has been quoted as saying, “The claim that this is a data breach is completely false. Aleksandr Kogan… gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent. People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.” The social networking site, however, is yet to inform users whose data have been compromised.

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