Episode 1: The Prologue
When George Orwell predicted a future without any privacy, he meant more along the lines of a totalitarian regime by a government. Nobody imagined that the actual Big Brother would be your friendly neighbourhood social media app, Facebook, who would willingly share the data with the “right” people. But that’s exactly what has happened. Over the past week, everybody from private users of Facebook to famous personalities (like Elon Musk) and even various governments are reacting to this fiasco. Understandably, it’s a bad reaction, considering this seems like a nightmare straight from a Black Mirror episode.
Read more to know how Facebook has simultaneously alienated everyone who ever used it, and how this data leak affects all of us.
So, what actually happened?
While everyone is aware that the data concerning 50 million users was misused by Cambridge Analytica for targeted ads, it’s still not clear how it all went down.
All this started with Michal Kosinski’s research. Kosinski is a scientist who holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Cambridge apart from an M.Phil in Psychometrics and an MS in Social Psychology. Suffice it to say, that Kosinski knows what he is doing when it comes to Psychology.
One of the main branches of psychology is psychodemographics or psychometrics. This is a branch which tries to measure the psychological traits of people. But to do this, earlier there was a huge questionnaire that needed to be filled by people. To bypass this long and tedious process, Kosinski along with Sitwell developed the myPersonality project.
And the data that was collected by this project was pretty accurate. According to the reports, it is said that, “In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.”
So not only did this project create psychological profiles for the people with the data collected, but conversely, it could also search for people based on certain criteria or characteristics, a search engine for people if you will. This particular quality of the app and its data made it covetable by companies such as Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), better known as Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) parent company. CA’s former employee Aleksandr Kogan (also an academic psychologist and data scientist at Cambridge) approached Kosinski for access to the myPersonality database. Kosinski refused to do so. But this did not deter SCL or CA. They reportedly paid Kogan upwards of USD 800,000 to recreate this application and to harvest data.
Kogan succeeded in doing this and attracted over 270,000 Facebook users to take an online personality quiz and allow access to their Facebook data. When this quiz rolled out, Facebook’s settings allowed Kogan to not access the data for these 270,000 users but also their friends. Which means that if Kogan had access to your Facebook data, and you had 500 friends, then Kogan had access to the data for these 500 friends. This is how Kogan was able to collect data for around 50 million Facebook users. But even if he could collect all this data, it was still within the guidelines provided, although a bit blurry.
But things really started to take a turn for the worse when it came to the usage of this data. Kogan had straight up lied about how this data would be used. While he collected the data under the pretext of “academic research”, it was shared with SCL and CA, who as is their job, used it for their ad-targeting.
Who are SCL and CA? Why are they considered so dangerous?
When you enter SCL’s website, it states in conspicuous terms on its cover page that:
SCL Group provides data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organizations worldwide. For over 25 years, we have conducted behavioral change programs in over 60 countries & have been formally recognized for our work in defense & social change.
Cambridge Analytica has two sub-divisions of its work – CA Commercial and CA Political. So when you access the CA Political webpage, it states “We find your voters and move them to action.” It is also aware of the fact that it has redefined the relationship between data and campaigns.
Except, SCL and CA have taken the phrase “we find your voters” to a whole other level – that includes lying about and misusing the data collected from Facebook.
Watch out for the next episodes of this series, where I will look into the following aspects:
- how whistle-blower Christopher Wylie came out with the story,
- how SCL and CA have influenced political campaigns,
- how CA and Facebook are defending themselves and most importantly,
- CA’s extent in the Indian elections and how it affects the Indian citizens.