Monday, 9 July 2018

Cambridge Analytica & Facebook

It is so easy, isn't it, to do quizzes on Facebook. Friends send them to you, and we click on them and... give our data to whoever built the quiz. This is how Cambridge Analytica got all that data to be able to narrow-cast election information to we FB users which have now be shown to skew the US and Brexit elections (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 17 March 2018; Greenfield, 26 March 2018; Harris, 21 March 2018).

I have decided to avoid all and any of these quizzes from now on, but also thought it would be useful to spread the word a bit further than just making my own decision.

The focus of FB is apparently "to amass as much data as they can about users and their online friends and make vast amounts of money by facilitating micro-targeting by advertisers" (Harris, 21 March 2018). Good point. All those FB adds that we ignore are why we are captive cattle on FB. This is not a philanthropic machine.

FB also has a pretty poor reputation with keeping our data safe. We didn't hear about it though, because FB kept it quiet. A quarter of a million FB users did a personality quiz in 2014 which harvested, all up, 50 million FB friends info by some pretty dodgy people. Never mind 6 degrees of separation. 

This happened FOUR years go, and was - then and now - completely against "Facebook’s rules about data being used by third parties for commercial purposes" (Harris, 21 March 2018). FB not only didn't tell any of us, it did very little to recover our stolen information, or to secure our data for the future. Ouch.

So the problem is not new. With Cambridge Analytica (owned by Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon), stage one was simply to repeat what happened in 2014 and harvest lots of voter profiles on pretty much the same way. Many of us willingly clicked into a quiz app called "thisisyourdigitallife", created by academic/businessman Aleksandr Kogan of Global Science Research (GSR), partnered by Cambridge Analytica. Hundreds of thousands of us were paid a small amount to take the thisisyourdigitallife quiz and agreed to have our data collected for academic use. Not business use. So our data was collected under false presences, as well as far more info being harvested than we anticipated.

How did they get more data than we signed up to share? Exporting your FB data is an education in itself (here). I limit my profile and have carefully turned off access to pretty much everything. I was shocked at how much this platform knows about me. You will find, if you dig into your data archive, all sorts of things that FB shouldn't know about you. But it does, because of cross-referencing, quizzes, your friends, and the many, many apps that feed into FB from the background. Think about how many sites you log into using your FB login, rather than creating yet another profile.

Stage two was to push out content targeted at skewing the votes of FB users to achieve the ends of Cambridge Analytica's clients. Carefully designed algorithms ensured that harvested peoples' news feeds contained more fake news than true, which they then spread through their groups and friends (Harris, 21 March 2018). But the fake news ploy didn't stop there. Greenfield said that around the "Brexit referendum, a digital services firm linked to Cambridge Analytica received a £625,000 payment from a pro-Brexit campaign organisation which had been given the money by Vote Leave" (26 March 2018). They used the same strategy to ensure that FB feeds were full of fake news, which was passed on.

The result was a clear demonstration of just how thin our veneer of democracy is. Two catastrophically poor decisions made by two nations which should know better. Just from idiots like us who click on a free quiz because it is 'fun', and are too lazy to create separate profiles for websites we go to.

Cambridge Analytica announced bankruptcy proceedings in May, due to - in their opinion - media stories about Cambridge Analytica's FB data mining having “driven away virtually all of the company’s customers and suppliers” (Waterson, 2 May 2018). Interesting that Cambridge Analytica did not feel that the company closure was due to their illegal and immoral data harvesting, deceptive practices, and manipulation of public opinion.

Another telling phrase in what I have read about this sorry affair is from John Harris (21 March 2018). "Zuckerberg said [...] 'The concept that the world will be better if you share more is something that’s pretty foreign to a lot of people, and it runs into all these privacy concerns.' (You could write a doctoral thesis about those words: the professed belief in improving the lot of humanity sounding distinctly like window-dressing for [...FB]’s pursuit of endlessly increasing revenues; the seeming impatience summed up in the words 'all these privacy concerns'.)"

Wow: "all these privacy concerns". Fancy us plebs having privacy concerns. Mr Zuckerberg appears to still have some ...unusual ideas about what belongs to whom. Consider the Winkelvoss brothers, for example. 

Leopards don't change their spots.



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