Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and data mining: What you need to know – CNET

Facebook's MPK20 headquarters building, brightly lit at night.

Facebook’s MPK20 headquarters building in Menlo Park, California. Your data is somewhere behind that colorful structure.


Consultants working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exploited the personal Facebook data of millions.

That’s the key message in Saturday stories by The New York Times and the UK’s Guardian and Observer newspapers, as well as in statements from Facebook. The stories and statements indicate the social networking giant was duped by researchers, who reportedly gained access to the data of more than 50 million Facebook users, which was then misused for political ads during the 2016 US presidential election.

Until now, most of what you’ve heard about Facebook and the 2016 election has been focused on meddling by Russian operatives. Those efforts are being investigated by the FBI and the US Senate. 

Data consultancy Cambridge Analytica represents a different problem. The UK-based company reportedly acquired data about millions of Facebook users in a way that violated the social network’s policies. It then tapped that information to build psychographic profiles of users and their friends, which were utilized for targeted political ads in the UK’s Brexit referendum campaign, as well as by Trump’s team during the 2016 US election. 

Facebook says it told Cambridge Analytica to delete the data, but also that reports suggest the info wasn’t destroyed. Cambridge Analytica says it complies with the social network’s rules, only receives data “obtained legally and fairly,” and did wipe out the data Facebook is worried about.

Here’s what you need to know.

Now Playing: Watch this: Did Facebook lose control of your information?


What is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a UK-based data analytics firm, whose parent company is Strategic Communication Laboratories. Cambridge Analytica helps political campaigns reach potential voters online. The firm combines data from multiple sources, including online information and polling, to build “profiles” of voters. The company then uses computer programs to predict voter behavior, which then could be influenced through specialized advertisements aimed at the voters.

Cambridge Analytica isn’t working with a small amount of user data either. The company says it has “5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters” — or pretty much all of us, considering there are an estimated 250 million people of voting age in the US

The company has since faced criticism for what executives, including what CEO Alexander Nix, said in a series of undercover videos shot by the UK’s Channel 4. In the videos, he discussed lies and seeming blackmail he’d perform as part of his efforts to sway elections.

“We have lots of history of things,” Nix said in the videos, “I’m just giving you examples of what can be done and what, what has been done.”

Nix has since been suspended from his job at CEO, saying his comments “do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation,” the company said in a statement.

What did Cambridge Analytica do?

Facebook said in a statement late Friday that Cambridge Analytica received user data from Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Kogan reportedly created an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” that ostensibly offered personality predictions to users while calling itself a research tool for psychologists.

The app asked users to log in using their Facebook account. As part of the login process, it asked for access to users’ Facebook profiles, locations, what they liked on the service, and importantly, their friends’ data as well.

Facebook logo on mousepad

Facebook’s data appears to have been improperly used for political purposes during the UK’s Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election.

Getty Images

The problem, Facebook says, is that Kogan then sent this user data to Cambridge Analytica without user permission, something that’s against the social network’s rules.

“Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules,” Paul Grewal, a vice president and general counsel at Facebook, said in a statement.

Kogan didn’t respond to requests for comment. The New York Times said he cited nondisclosure agreements and declined to provide details about what happened, saying his personality prediction program was “a very standard vanilla Facebook app.”

What does this have to do with Trump?

The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to run data operations during the 2016 election (Steve Bannon, who eventually became Trump’s chief strategist, was also reportedly vice president of Cambridge Analytica’s board). The company helped the campaign identify voters to target with ads, and gave advice on how best to focus its approach, such as where to make campaign stops. It also helped with strategic communication, like what to say in speeches.

“The applications of what we do are endless,” Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Nix said last year in an interview with CNET sister site TechRepublic.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Cambridge Analytica also worked with other 2016 presidential election campaigns, according to its website and various media reports. Those included the campaigns of Sen. Ted Cruz and presidential candidate Ben Carson, who went on to join Trump’s cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development

Why did Facebook ban Cambridge Analytica from its service? 

Facebook said Cambridge Analytica “certified” three years ago it had deleted the information, as did Kogan. But since then, Facebook said, it’s received reports that not all the user data was deleted. The New York Times reported Saturday that at least some of it remains.

Cambridge Analytica said in a statement Saturday it deleted all the data and is in contact with Facebook about the issue.

Meanwhile, Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who detailed how Cambridge Analytica reportedly misappropriated Facebook user data, said on Twitter that his Facebook account has been suspended.

Was Facebook hacked?

The New York Times characterizes this as a data “breach” and says it’s “one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history.” That’s in part because the roughly 270,000 users who gave Kogan access to their information allowed him to collect data on their friends as well. In total, more than 50 million Facebook users are said to have been affected.

The misuse of this data is what The New York Times zeroed in on.

Facebook, however, says that while Kogan mishandled its data, all the information Kogan got was accessed legally and within its rules. The problem is that Kogan was supposed to hold onto the information himself, not hand it over to Cambridge Analytica or anyone else. So Facebook disputes that the incident was a data breach, because the information was accessed through normal means — using an app that asked people for access to their information, which they then agreed to.

The social network argued its point even further in an update to its Friday statement, saying that calling this episode a “breach” is “false.”

“People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked,” the company said.

Of course, critics point out that Kogan was able to do what he allegedly did because Facebook allowed app developers to request and receive access to the data of users’ friends. Facebook changed that policy in 2015, prohibiting the practice.

Wait, so Facebook allows apps to access my data?

When you log in to an app using your Facebook account, the developer typically asks for access to information the social network has. Sometimes it’s just your name and email address. Other times, it’s your location and your friends’ data too.

All this is pretty much what any app developer that works with Facebook is allowed to do. That is, until 2015, when Facebook stopped app developers from having access to friends’ data. The rest, though, is still fair game.

Facebook says its rules specify that developers can’t share the information they receive with other firms. That’s where the problem with Kogan and Cambridge Analytica comes up.

But everything else? That’s fine by Facebook. The company has an app review process it puts developers through, but once they’re cleared, things are A-OK.

You hand your information over to app developers all the time. Don’t like it? Think before you click, and read the requests from app developers more carefully.

Could this lead to more regulation?

One thing we do know for sure: The honeymoon between the tech industry and government is over. After decades of tech companies (mostly) being treated as favored children, legislators and government regulators are increasingly taking a tougher stance against them.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in front of signs that say "Focus on Impact" and "Be Bold."

Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic are looking for answers from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

James Martin/CNET

Already, this scandal has renewed calls for more regulation. 

“This latest fiasco could reignite the debate within the Beltway and EU around a tighter regulatory environment Facebook and its social platform brethren could face going forward,” Daniel Ives, an analyst at GBH Insights, wrote in a note to investors Sunday. “This represents another critical period for Facebook to hand hold and assure its users and regulators around tighter content standards and platform security in light of this latest PR nightmare.”

In Washington, lawmakers and other officials were quick to demand that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify before Congress, something he hasn’t personally done in recent hearings over the intersection of social media, elections, trolls and hacking.

“The lack of oversight on how data is stored and how political advertisements are sold raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights,” Sens. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said in a statement Monday.

Meanwhile, Facebook could face an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission over whether it violated a 2011 consent decree, according to Bloomberg News. The consent decree required that Facebook must get users to agree to and be notified about the social network sharing their data. Facebook separately told the Washington Post that it rejected “any suggestion of violation of the consent decree.”

In Europe, where regulators have traditionally taken a tough stance on social media and privacy, the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, on Monday tweeted that EU lawmakers “will investigate fully, calling digital platforms to account.” In the UK, Damian Collins, the chair of Parliament’s committee overseeing digital matters, said that Zuckerberg needs to stand up and answer questions directly.

“Someone has to take responsibility for this,” Collins said. “It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to stop hiding behind his Facebook page.”

Where in the world is Mark Zuckerberg?

Boy, would we like to have an answer. So far, Zuckerberg has been absent from the conversation. He’s made no public comments, he hasn’t issued any statements, and his Facebook page hasn’t been updated since March 2, when he posted a photo about celebrating Purim

His silence extended into Tuesday, when Facebook reportedly held a company-wide briefing to discuss the fallout. Neither Zuckerberg nor COO Sheryl Sandberg attended, according to The Daily Beast

Of course, his low profile hasn’t silenced lawmakers, who are threatening to call him before legislators in the US and UK.

What can I do?

There isn’t much. You may’ve been swept up in this without even knowing it. You don’t have to have downloaded Kogan’s app to have had your information accessed, since the statements and articles say the app slurped up information about users’ friends.

Cambridge Analytica also doesn’t appear to offer a way for you to request your information be removed from its systems. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

As for Facebook, you can always try to lodge a complaint with Zuckerberg (whenever he resurfaces, anyway).

You should also check your privacy settings on Facebook. And if you’re really unhappy, you could join the #DeleteFacebook campaign. Here’s how to do it.

First published March 17 at 1:52 p.m. PT.
Updated March 18 at 3:21 p.m. PT: Added analyst comment about regulation.
Updated March 19 at 10:17 a.m. PT: Added information about calls for action in Washington and in Europe.
Updated March 19 at 5:14 p.m. PT: Added summary of Washington Post report questioning whether Facebook violated a consent decree.
Updated March 20 at 9:32 a.m. PT: Added information about a potential FTC investigation.
Updated March 20 at 3:32 p.m. PT: Added details about Mark Zuckerberg’s silence and Channel 4’s undercover investigation of Cambridge Analytica.

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