Under influence of the Unknown

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal underscores that social media data can be misused even to manipulate our electoral choices.

By Author  |  Published: 25th Mar 2018  12:29 am

The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal that compromised 50 million Facebook users has exposed the ‘plots’ in the Trump campaign and the presidential elections in Kenya. Closer home, the scandal has embroiled our nation’s major political parties, which are now busy fending off charges of ‘engaging social media users’ to trap and impact the Indian electorate.

Remedial Action

Since the issue became public a fortnight ago, Facebook has banned Cambridge Analytica, Aleksandr Kogan and Christopher Wylie from its platform because they had improperly shared and failed to delete the data. It has also issued statements about what Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are doing to remedy the situation and protect the integrity of its users’ data stating “Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working round-the-clock to get all the facts and take appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue.”

Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO Alexander Nix and ‘strongly denied’ the allegations that it acted improperly. The company said it was working within the terms and conditions of Facebook’s platform, and that the third party was to blame for any breach of trust or privacy.

In fact, the data firm had told British Parliament in February that it did not collect people’s information without their consent, but later admitted in a statement that they did in fact obtain the data and claimed to have deleted the information as soon as it found that it violated Facebook’s privacy rules.

Despite its damage control measures and numerous assurances to users, Facebook has seen its stock price plunge and lawmakers in the US and the UK are demanding that Zuckerberg explain his company’s practices.

How Trouble Started

Facebook allowed Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge who owns a company named Global Science Research, to harvest data from users, who downloaded his app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’.

Kogan was actually asked to buy researcher Michael Kosinski’s data (see ‘Likes’ and Opinions). When Kosinski declined to part with his data, Cambridge Analytica paid Kogan over $8,00,000 to create his own personality app to harvest data from Facebook users.

Kogan’s app attracted 2,70,000 Facebook users to take the online personality quiz. But Facebook’s APIs at the time allowed Kogan’s app to also collect a broad range of information about each authorised user’s friends. The average Facebook user has hundreds of friends, so Kogan was able to leverage his user base of 2,70,000 people to harvest data for about 50 million Facebook users.

Facebook says Kogan told them he was collecting the data only for academic purposes. But that wasn’t true. Kogan shared this data with Cambridge Analytica for use in its ad-targeting work.

The Whistleblower

Christopher Wylie — who worked at Cambridge Analytica before quitting in 2014 — claimed that the firm was “founded on misappropriated data of at least 50 million Facebook users.”

Wylie added that Cambridge Analytica’s goal was to establish profiling algorithms that would “allow us to explore mental vulnerabilities of people, and then map out ways to inject information into different streams or channels of content online so that people started to see things all over the place that may or may not have been true.”

The Dark Belly

In a video released by Channel 4, Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix is heard saying that the company helped Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns for the 2013 and 2017 elections. He also reveals that the company could use bribes, former spies and Ukrainian sex workers to entrap politicians around the world.

According to Channel 4 — in the meetings, the executives boasted that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) had worked in more than 200 elections across the world, including Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India (see India Connect) and Argentina.

In reference to Trump’s presidential campaign, it illegally accessed the personal data of millions of American Facebook users in 2014 in a bid to manipulate the outcome of polls. Special Counsel Robert Mueller believes the revelations can help determining Russian interference in the US elections. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mueller has requested Cambridge Analytica to “turn over documents as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election”.

Is it a data breach?

No. The data wasn’t stolen or hacked. Nobody broke into anybody’s account and pilfered data. And that’s what makes it so worrying — they didn’t have to.

Still Facebook, through its app protocols at that time, allowed an organisation to mine through users’ accounts and take their personal data without any real informed consent. Though it may be correct to say that it wasn’t a breach, for 50 million users the net effect was the same. Their data was taken without their knowledge, potentially to manipulate it and be used against them.

Flagging Caution

Should social media users be worried? It’s an individual’s point of view and call. Facebook says it is working to ensure that all the data extracted is no longer in circulation or stored anywhere that could be hacked.

But what’s more important is to stay informed on what the apps you use do with your data. Facebook profiles its users, their likes and interests in minute detail to help advertisers and other groups — like political action groups — reach them and convince them to vote, buy things and take certain actions.

If this is a concern, learn about your security settings and consider limiting your use of platforms that allow more access to your information than you’re happy with.

Secure Your Data

• Enable two-factor authentication on all your accounts

• Don’t click links in your email and instead copy/paste URLs

• Check email header to make sure inbound email is from known URLs

• Beware of phishing attacks that look legit.

• Don’t enter your username and password anywhere

• Use password managers like LastPass or 1Password to create and store long complex passwords

Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica is a British political analysis firm that claims to build psychological profiles of voters to help its clients win elections. It started off in 2013 with $15 million funding from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer. It is a subsidiary of Strategic Communication Laboratories, a government and military contractor.

It offers services in consumer research, targeted advertising and other data-related services. It aided Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign before helping Trump’s campaign. It is also known for helping the ‘Leave’ side in the Brexit referendum.

Likes’ and Opinions

Researcher Michal Kosinski found that he could predict a lot about a person based on Facebook likes. Kosinski created an online personality quiz that required users to log in to Facebook to take it. Once users logged in, he collected data from the user’s Facebook profile, including the list of pages s/he “liked.” The quiz was a hit and Kosinski soon had a large database of people’s private Facebook data. He found that Facebook data was a surprisingly good predictor of other demographic and personality traits.

On the basis of an average of 68 Facebook ‘likes’ by a user, it was possible to predict their skin colour (with 95% accuracy), their sexual orientation (88% accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85%).

India Connect

In India, SCL partners with a company called Ovleno Business Intelligence, which is owned by Amrish Tyagi, son of the senior JD(U) leader KC Tyagi. The company lists BJP, Congress and Janata Dal (United) as its political clients. Strategic Communications Laboratories Private Limited, an Indian company based in Ghaziabad, counts both Tyagi and Nix as its directors.


It is time. #deletefacebook — this tweet by former WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton acted like a salt on an already bruised Facebook. Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014. Acton remained with Facebook for several years before quitting to start ‘Signal Foundation’ early this year.