Developments in the Cambridge Analytica saga picked up speed on Wednesday, with the company suspending CEO Alexander Nix, who was secretly recorded bragging about the firm’s influence in Donald Trump’s election campaign.
Meanwhile, UK-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, who designed an app that gathered data of 50 million Facebook users, told the BBC he was being used as a scapegoat by both the firm and the social network.
His app gathered the data through a process of psychometric profiling, offering Facebook users a personality test designed to tell them about themselves.Only a small number of users had to respond in order for a much larger number of profiles to be accessed.
“In exchange for payment, 270,000 people accepted the permissions of the app, and those permissions granted access to the app to all the profiles of the people who received the payment, but also to their friends’ profiles,” says Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a mathematician and co-founder of data firm PersonalData.IO.
Kogan and Facebook both insist they were operating in full legality, but Dehaye says the charge that it represents the social network’s largest ever data breach is justified.
“Users would not expect that to happen, in general,” he says. “Facebook has argued it wasn’t a breach, because it’s essentially how its whole infrastructure works, and this shows a core problem with Facebook, which is that many people do not realise how their data is being transferred all over the place.”
Personality tests and voting behaviour
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie said in reports published over the weekend that he helped Cambridge Analytica use the data to identify target voter groups and design targeted messaging to influence opinion.
If Nix bragged about just that when it came to his firm's role in Trump’s election, a causal link between psychometric testing and influence over the election is not so easy to establish.
“You can say that if a person answers a questions in a certain way they must have a certain personality trait,” says Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York.
“It is much less clear that the personality trait is connected to any particular ability to be persuaded or moved by social pressure, and it’s not clear that any of the psychometric data is actually connected to any of those other variables about the type of messages that might change your mind.”
Focus shifts to Facebook
But if there is cause for scepticism about the extent of Cambridge Analytica's influence on Trump's election, the revelations have underscored the nefarious intentions driving the firm's attempts to use personality testing and mined data for political ends.
This is why the focus has come onto Facebook itself, whose critics have been warning of the company's aggressive gathering and misuse of personal data for more than a decade.
“We know it’s been happening for so long, but it became visible in a different way, and that’s what changed here,” says Baldwin-Philippi.
“When things are visible, that appears to perhaps change people’s minds about their comfort with what data is collected,” she continues.
“I would hope for a better discussion about requiring tech firms to make some of this data available, as well as the practices they engage with when it comes to the data. And that would also involve public education about what your data is doing and how it’s moving in the world.”
Following the revelations, lawmakers in the US, the UK and the European Union have summoned Facebook CEO over the company’s use of personal data, and the United Nations said Tuesday it wanted to broach the subject in a gathering of stakeholders in the information industry.
“If you look at what’s happening now, we see that information mediated by commercial companies is starting to be used by international players, nation states, to influence each other and even interfere in internal affairs of some countries,” says Paul-Oliver Dehaye, who says talks at the UN level would be a significant and important opportunity.
“There are lots of individuals and citizens whose information ecosystem is being manipulated in the context of information warfare.”