Washington (GPA) – Over the weekend, The New York Times exposed Cambridge Analytica’s use of stolen Facebook data in the 2016 US elections. Here’s what we know so far.
Cambridge Analytica, a fairly fresh campaign consultant company that was founded with $15 million from Donald Trump backer Robert Mercer in 2014, has recently become the focus of a massive investigation by The New York Times which has exposed what is likely the largest loss of data incurred by Facebook.
According to The Times, it is likely that approximately 50 million Facebook users had their data given to a research firm for ‘academic purposes’ by Facebook, which was then used by Cambridge Analytica (and fellow firm SCL Group) during the 2016 presidential election and the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom.
The Facebook user data was initially given to a research firm known as Global Science Research (GSR) and its subsidiary This Is Your Digital Life, which was then later shared with Cambridge Analytica and stored internally at the consulting firm. According to information obtained from whistleblower Christopher Wylie formerly of Cambridge Analytica, the firm knew this was in violation of Facebook’s rules, although the firm claims that “When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, Cambridge Analytica deleted all data received from GSR.”
The firm also claimed that “No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign,” despite documents obtained by The Times that appear to show forms for targeting campaign advertisements with Facebook user information. Facebook also claims that this data was deleted by Cambridge Analytica despite The Times also claiming to have seen evidence to the contrary.
As of Monday night, this information has already proven to be at least credible enough to launch a legal inquiry in the UK, where authorities are apparently seeking a warrant to raid Cambridge Analytica’s offices. While the exact evidence remains unknown, the possible illegal data cache has also been made more believable by further revelations by the UK’s Channel 4, which released undercover recordings of Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix detailing illegal activities from creating false identities to offering to entrap and blackmail clients’ rival politicians.
While we shouldn’t expect much integrity from Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has also responded to this news poorly.
Facebook claims to have completely fixed the issues that initially led to the leak of data to GSR. According to the social media giant, these clean-up efforts were extensive but ended in August in 2016, despite the fact that the issue was clearly a deep systemic issue. Facebook even employs a psychologist whose firm sold data to Cambridge Analytica.
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Facebook clearly isn’t going to detail the full extent of the leak and is unlikely to explain why it seems like their efforts to fix their error – which they claimed was done in August 2016 – are still ongoing. At this point, it seems the next step will be for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to answer the calls to appear in front of the US Congress and wait for likey details of more companies that have abused Facebook user information in this way.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.