Facebook has issued a ban on its platform for the analytics company that served the Leave and the Trump campaigns, namely Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica allegedly used a data-mining application, collecting personal account data from Facebook, matching them with other data sources, and translating them into behaviour patterns.
In sum, this data became actionable intelligence, allowing the two most consequential political campaigns of 2016 to win. In the United States, Cambridge Analytica mined 50 million individual accounts, the New York Times and the Observer reported on Saturday.
The far-right pioneering big data in political campaigning
The data-analytics company is the common denominator between the UK’s Leave campaign and Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign.
The Cambridge Analytica CEO is Alexander Nix and its owner is the 70-year old US conservative hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Mercer contributed $11 million to a pro-Cruz Super PAC; when he dropped out, he moved to donate $13,5 million to the Donald Trump campaign. Mercer is a major investor in the far-right media outlet Breitbart News Network, co-owned by the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
The Guardian reported that Mercer offered the services of Cambridge Analytica to Nigel Farage for Leave campaign free of charge.
Mining and politically exploiting personal data
The name of the company (“Cambridge”) is derived from the psychologist Dr. Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University. Kogan developed the “this is your digital life” application that translates various data into behavioural proxies that can be used to target voters.
The Facebook of micro-targeting has clearly influenced the way Cambridge Analytica exploits data, linking 5,000 data points to behavioural trends to provide so-called psychographic profiles, which can be exploited by political campaigns.
Target groups are no longer broken down into “demographic groups” alone, but also “psychographic” groups, in terms of personality traits such as “openness,” “extraversion,” “neuroticism,” and the like.
Users downloaded the app voluntarily, using a Facebook login to subscribe to other services. Therefore, the company gained full access to personal data, including residence, social networks, and “likes.” While this app was downloaded by hundreds of thousands, until 2015, the app could also gain access to “friends’” data.
This created a pool of tens of millions.
According to Facebook, this data was apparently sold to third parties. A Friday post made the allegations explicit:
“In 2015, we learned that … Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe,” Facebook said.
According to Facebook, Kegan violated company policy. The software that allows the exploitation of individual personal data – and those of friends – has since been removed and the data has been destroyed. Kogan’s Cambridge Analytica claims:
“We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made. We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information,” the company said in a statement.
Legal and political reaction in the US and the UK
Hours after the Facebook announcement, the Massachusetts attorney-general announced the opening of an investigation that will involve both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The company is not facing allegations of hacking personal information; however, instead the commissioner will be investigating whether or not the use of existing data is legal.
The UK information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, reacted to the banning of Cambridge Analytica from the Facebook platform announcing her own probe in the use of analytics in political campaigning. For over a year, there is an ongoing probe into how Cambridge Anatylica and other analytics companies influenced the referendum on EU membership. Part of the question at hand is whether Russia was involved in the process.
Facebook faces its own legal hurdles, as its model of data-mining and micro-targeting has been criticized by the European Commission. Beginning in May, companies that supply user data for political purposes without their explicit consent will face fines of up to 4% of their revenue.
US Senators are also considering the regulation of the internet, the Financial Times report, citing the vice-chair of the Senate Select Committee on intelligence, Mark Warner. The case made by advocates of internet regulation is that information that is unaccountable is not transparent and deception can become the norm.
Cambridge Analytica has surfaced in Rubert Mueller’s investigation in allegations of Russian meddling with the US campaign. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn disclosed an advisory role with Cambridge Analytica last August. The company said that the role was planned but never materialised.