The UK’s data protection watchdog finally bared its teeth when it found Facebook had breached data protection laws and imposed a £500,000 fine. Investigating since February 2017, after an article expose in the Observer, the Information Commissioner’s Office has heard an entire rollercoaster of revelations concerning the misuse of user data by ‘data broker for hire’ company, Cambridge Analytica.
The ICO reported that ‘although Facebook had changed the platform since the time of the data breach’, they ‘hadn’t really followed through on their responsibilities’ since that time.
Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham went further, commenting on the release of 87 million UK Facebook users’ data to a ‘political consultancy’ adding ‘even when they found out that the data set was out there’ they ‘failed to address the magnitude of the breach’.
Lack of transparency
What emerged during the ICO’s investigation of the activities of Cambridge Analytica, and their parent company SCL Elections, was the calculated use of data to influence the political choices of Facebook users. Specifically, using a psychological profiling survey to gather intelligence, in what is known in military methodology, as a form of ‘information operations’.
Aware that there is currently a special investigation underway in the US concerning Facebook, SCL and subsequent links to the recent US Presidential election, it seemed inevitable the whole house of cards would come tumbling down for Facebook.
What’s at stake, concerning transparency, is the idea that average users of a social platform such as Facebook don’t expect blanket data permission statements to include sharing all their friends’ intel with a data broker. That data broker was UK based company, Cambridge Analytica.
Lack of safeguards
Hired by US interests to influence the outcome of the EU Referendum in favour of the Leave Campaign, Cambridge Analytica found acquiring unbridled access to users of Facebook relatively easy. Why Facebook? Because they needed a large UK data set to apply their latest research methodology into political profiling. Posting up a choice to take a survey invitingly labelled myPersonality, was all it took to get the ball rolling.
In exchange for taking the survey, users consented to giving access to their Facebook profiles in exchange for discovering which of the ‘big five’ personality traits they scored with – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.
Unbeknownst to the users who took the survey, all of their friends’ Facebook data was harvested by Cambridge Analytica and profiled for political leanings. Then, in a move that, in simpler terms, manipulated your own experience of social media by pushing you, subtly if you need it, harder if you were more on board, towards the views of their clients. How? Cambridge Analytica created Facebook adverts for their clients that users viewed about the upcoming EU referendum and the US elections.
Highly refined, targeted advertorial agreeing in tone with their political likings, yet leaning towards the right of the spectrum.
How it all went down
Former Cambridge Analytica analyst Christopher Wiley, whom some might call the architect of trend profiling, turned whistleblower whilst working in the UK on the Leave Campaign. Guess he must have personally scored highly in the ‘Openess’ category!