On Wednesday, social media giant Facebook apologized for not doing enough to prevent a mysterious technology firm from obtaining users’ data from the platform.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed Cambridge Analytica (CA) obtained and failed to delete data from a developer who created a personality quiz app for social media. Although CA denied doing so, reports surfaced that the company used that information to help then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election.
The company also denied keeping the data, but the ensuing controversy re-fueled concerns surrounding privacy, social media, and it’s impact on American democracy.
What is Cambridge Analytica, though?
On its website, CA boasts that it uses data to “change audience behavior” and moves voters to action, something it did for multiple candidates during the 2016 presidential race.
Based in London, the company worked with high-profile candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and — most controversially — with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Although Bannon claimed he didn’t remember purchasing Facebook data while working at the company, Christopher Wylie, a former employee who thought of the idea to harvest user information, said he utilized that data on Bannon’s behalf.
“We ‘broke’ Facebook,” Wylie told the Guardian during an interview published on Sunday.
When asked whether he “hacked” Facebook, Wylie said he thought everything he did was legal and “above board.”
Using Facebook data wasn’t the only CA tactic that raised concern. Earlier this week, Channel 4 News released undercover footage of CEO Alexander Nix and other senior employees discussing their tactics. Those reportedly included entrapping politicians with bribes and sex workers.
“We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance,” Nix reportedly said.
“We’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet.”
CA later suspended Nix, saying that his comments “do not represent the values or operations of the firm.”
The company also denied using bribes or entrapment “for any purpose whatsoever.” “We routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions,” a CA spokesman said.
Involvement In the Trump Campaign
Despite concerns from campaign aides and manager Paul Manafort, the Trump team hired Cambridge Analytica to support its data operation leading up to the general election.
While supporting the Trump team, CA manipulated that data to create psychographic profiles, essentially segmenting voters based on their personality or behavior.
CA, which received a little less than $6 million from the campaign, appeared to deny doing so, however, saying that it didn’t have enough time after joining Trump’s team in June:
MYTH #3: CA used personality profiles in the 2016 US presidential election.
REALITY: We joined in June. There wasn’t time. Building a presidential data program takes campaigns well over a year. So we focused on the core elements of a political data science program.
— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) March 20, 2018
At the end of 2016, CA’s head of product similarly indicated that the campaign didn’t embrace the company’s psychographic techniques.
It’s unclear just how much CA’s efforts helped the Trump campaign in 2016.
After the election, campaign officials initially praised CA for supplementing the campaign’s polling data, streamlining decision-making processes.
But the firm also reportedly “failed miserably” when campaign officials compared models from both the Republican National Committee (RNC) and CA — that used the same dataset.
“At that point it was sort of like, OK, the emperor has no clothes,” a former campaign official said.
CA also tried to assist the Trump campaign by seeking an avenue to publish former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 missing emails. The firm reportedly sought to work with Wikileaks, which refused the offer.
Why Did Facebook Ban CA From Its Services?
Facebook came under criticism after news surfaced that CA obtained its data from the massive social media platform’s users.
CA was reportedly able to purchase access to Facebook data from 270,000 personality tests included in an app created by Aleksandr Kogan. When Facebook found out about the transaction, which it said violated its policies, it banned Kogan from the platform and demanded CA’s legal certification that it deleted all of the data.
Facebook also banned CA from all of its services, citing reporting that the firm didn’t actually delete the data,
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the data leak, saying, “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”
CA, however, denied even using Facebook data to help the Trump campaign:
MYTH #2: CA used Facebook data for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign.
REALITY: We used no data from Facebook in our models. We ran a standard political data science program with the same kind of political preference models used by other presidential campaigns.
— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) March 20, 2018
Despite CA’s many denials, however, the controversy surrounding their election involvement will likely grow as Facebook confronts angry users and investigators continue probing how outside actors used social media to influence the election.