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Shutting the stable door after 50 million Facebook records have bolted

banksy does brexit

Banksy does Brexit via Flickr © dullhunk (CC BY 2.0)

  • Facebook says it’s very cross and it has suspended the companies involved (ooh, scared!)
  • Meanwhile  investigators, including Trump-worrier Robert Mueller, are concerned that the data may have been used to swing the US presidential election...
  • ... and possibly the British Brexit referendum

On Friday Facebook announced that it was getting tough with miscreants who misused Facebook data in violation of their agreements, and to that end it was making an example of a UK company called Strategic Communication Laboratories and its political data analytics subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica. The companies were to be suspended from Facebook forthwith because, according to Facebook’s legal eagles, they had failed to destroy Facebook data that had been passed on to them by one Dr. Aleksandr Kogan (see - Suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from Facebook).

Yes, it’s starting to sound like a cold war spy story, but then it may be just that .

It turns out that Facebook, far from diligently following up from information it had already received about the data misuse off its own bat, had been spurred into the suspensions by the impending publication (on Saturday) of a jointly researched story about the case in both the UK Observer newspaper and the New York Times.

In fact Facebook had been aware as early as 2015 that Kogan - who had developed a dodgy-sounding Facebook app called  ‘thisisyourdigitallife’, through which users could trade their personal data (or some of it) in return for ‘personality prediction’ - had passed on the data to the now suspended ‘third party’ companies in violation of Facebook’s rules. In response at the time Facebook merely demanded ‘certifications’ from all concerned that the data had been destroyed. As we all know you can’t really ‘destroy’ data. No matter how many hairy-chested words you use to describe your actions it’s difficult to prove erasure, easy to duplicate and is therefore ultra-easy to lie about.

So where did that data go and who benefited? Well, what d’you know?  Looming up on the calendar was the referendum vote on Brexit in the UK and the 2016 US presidential election, but first Cambridge Analytica won investment from what the New York Times calls a ‘wealthy Republican donor’, Robert Mercer, on the promise that its tools could ID American voters’ personalities and therefore determine the best way to influence them to vote Republican in the run up to the 2014 mid-term elections. Such profiling would allow them to be targetted with carefully tailored ads.

The firm had the tools but it needed the data to assign personality types and for this it harvested Kogan’s data, using “private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission” according to the New York Times.  Remember the ripple of excitement occasioned by Facebook’s 6 degrees of separation theory. Its research has now reduced that to 3.57 degrees of separation (the number of ‘friends’ that separate you, on average, from every other Facebook user). It turns out  that the 50 million figure quoted in the newspaper reports includes the friends of the 270,000 people who took the original app invented by Kogan. At the time it was OK under Facebook’s rules for Kogan to access some ‘friends’ profile data and ‘likes’.

So with this data Analytica was allegedly able to assist the Trump campaign in its ad targetting - by how much and through what channels is now subject to further investigation. Doughty Russian collusion investigator, Robert Mueller, is reportedly asking for all the emails from all the companies involved to help get a clearer picture of Russian interference in the presidential election. Good luck with that.

In Britain the authorities are worried about the role Cambridge Analytica may have played in swinging the Brexit referendum to ‘out’.  The company is being investigated by both Parliament and the information commissioner, concerned that the Facebook data was illegally acquired, and therefore illegally used.  

Meanwhile, Facebook is apparently now energised over data leakage and privacy violations in general and this one in particular (a big advance on its pre-weekend attitude when it was downplaying what it must have known was a major data incident - after all, it made degrees of separation a ‘thing’). It says that its legal blood is now up and it will take action against all the offending parties. Yeah, good luck with that too.

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