Cambridge Analytica: What you need to know about the firm, Facebook and your information

Facebook officials said Wednesday that up to 87 million of its users had information “improperly shared,” when a British psychologist “scraped” data from people who took an online “quiz” and provided personal information to a firm that used the information to profile potential voters.

In a blog post published on Wednesday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said that despite initially saying 50 million people had information shared with the political research firm Cambridge Analytica, "In total, we believe the Facebook information of up to 87 million people—mostly in the US—may have been improperly shared" with the company.

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Schroepfer went on to say that almost all of Facebook’s users – some 2 billion people around the world – could have had their information improperly accessed.

Schroepfer said in the blog post that “malicious actors” have abused features on the social media site to “scrape public profile information by submitting phone numbers or email addresses they already have through search and account recovery.”

“Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped in this way,” Schroepfer said. “So we have now disabled this feature. We’re also making changes to account recovery to reduce the risk of scraping as well.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will testify April 10 and April 11 on Capitol Hill after telling reporters this week that he made a "huge mistake" in failing to make clear what Facebook's responsibility is to its users.

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The news Wednesday came on the heels of an ongoing scandal involving Facebook and a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica. Facebook claims Cambridge improperly obtained information on millions of those using the site and used the information to profile them and target political ads toward them.

What is Cambridge Analytica, where did it get the data and what did it do with it?

Here’s a look at the firm.

What is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a firm that supplies psychological profiles of potential voters to political campaigns. The information is supposed to help clients target their message and win elections.

The company builds models that translate data into personality profiles of voters. The company’s CEO, Alexander Nix, says Cambridge Analytica has “somewhere close to 4,000 or 5,000 data points” on every adult in the United States.

The company was formed in 2013. Its parent company is Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL).

What did they do concerning Facebook?

Cambridge Analytica is accused of buying the personal information of about 87 million Facebook users. The information was gathered by a psychology professor, Aleksandr Kogan, who told Facebook he wanted to collect information on its users for academic purposes. Of the raw profiles Kogan collected, millions could be linked to records to help identify the users' friends.

Who is Kogan, how did he get the info and what did he do with it?

Kogan is a professor at the University of Cambridge.

In 2014, he asked Facebook to allow him to collect the information by placing an app on the platform. That app was downloaded by 270,000 users, according to a story from Reuters. What most users did not realize was that once they downloaded the app, they were agreeing to share not only their information, but the information of the people they “friended” on the site.

After Kogan gathered the information, he passed it along to Cambridge Analytica. When Facebook found that Kogan had passed the information to Cambridge Analytica, company officials said they notified Kogan that he had violated its policies by sharing the information he had told the company was to be used for academic research.

Kogan, in an email to colleagues obtained by CNN, said he changed the terms and conditions of the app from its academic classification to a commercial application in the middle of the project. According to the email, Kogan said Facebook knew of the changes. Facebook denies they were told anything about changing the classification. Cambridge promised to destroy the information, however, Facebook was informed by journalists covering the story that Cambridge had kept copies of the data. Facebook banned Cambridge from the site after that

What was the app?

The app Kogan created was called "thisisyourdigitallife.” He had users take a personality test. The test required users to sign in through Facebook and agree to let their data be studied for academic purposes.

What went wrong?

The app pulled in data from users, but went a step further and gathered the information of those people the user had “friended.” It also captured other pages that users and their friends “liked.”

What was that data used for?

After it was collected, Kogan gave the information to SCL. The information was used to profile voters in the United States and help target political ads to specific voters.

How did they use the information to make profiles?

The profiles were compiled using the research of Michal Kosinski. Kosinski developed a model that took the "likes" of Facebook users and applied it to a questionnaire that determines personalities using five dimensions – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The questionnaire results are called OCEAN scores, or the Big Five Personality traits.

The information gathered and matched with personality profiles gave Cambridge Analytica the opportunity to pinpoint individual messages to certain personality types. In other words, the message you would get about a candidate would be the message you most likely would like to hear.

For instance, if you are a supporter of stronger border security, you would hear a message from the candidate on keeping undocumented aliens from coming into the United States. Or, you would hear a message about how the candidate’s opponent is soft on border measures.

How did news of the data mining become public?

The details come from a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Christopher Wylie. A former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Wylie said he spoke to The New York Times about the company's practices because he felt what they were doing was wrong.

Wylie told the "Today Show," "This was a company [Cambridge Analytica] that really took fake news to the next level by powering it with algorithms. Wylie said the company aimed to create algorithms for profiling social media users 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."

What does Cambridge Analytica say about it?

The company has denied in a statement that it did anything wrong. “In 2014 we received Facebook data and derivatives of Facebook data from another company, GSR, that we engaged in good faith to legally supply data for research,” the statement reads. “After it subsequently became known that GSR had broken its contract with Cambridge Analytica because it had not adhered to data protection regulation, Cambridge Analytica deleted all the Facebook data and derivatives, in cooperation with Facebook… This Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign.”

Cambridge suspended Nix after news of the Facebook data mining became known and a secret video was made public. The video showed Nix bragging about such campaign maneuvers as entrapping opposition candidates with offers of sexual favors and financial bribes. 

What does the Federal Trade Commission want to know?

The FTC is looking into whether Facebook violated a 2011 agreement that requires that users consent to certain changes to privacy policies. The consent decree that was agreed on in 2011 came after charges by the federal government that Facebook deceived users and forced them to share personal information they had not intended to share, according to a story from Bloomberg.

According to the Washington Post, the FTC said it would open a new investigation into the site’s practices.

How does this tie into the Trump campaign?

According to a New York Times story, Jared Kushner hired Brad Parscale, a man who had done some work for Trump before, to do digital work for Trump's campaign. In June 2016, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to handle all of its data operations. Cambridge got the job after making a pitch to Parscale.

The work on the digital operations went on in Texas, where Parscale was located, and soon included employees of Cambridge Analytica who were embedded with Parscale's firm.

Cambridge Analytica was only a portion of the digital campaign plan. In addition to Cambridge, voter data from the Republican National Committee was used to create the campaign’s database. The effort was called “Project Alamo.”

Trump’s campaign recently denied Cambridge Analytica data was used to create the database, and that the campaign “used the RNC for its voter data,” and “Any claims that voter data were used from another source to support the victory in 2016 are false.”

Election finance records show the campaign (Donald J. Trump for President INC.) paid the firm $5.9 million for “data management services.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has asked that Cambridge Analytica turn over documents as part of his investigation into possible collusion in the 2016 presidential campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported.

What about Cambridge Analytica’s tie with Steve Bannon?

Bannon, a former White House adviser for Trump, owned a stake in Cambridge Analytica and facilitated a meeting between members of the firm and Trump’s campaign staff.

How do I know if my data has been improperly collected?

The Associated Press reports that “starting Monday, Facebook users will receive a notice on their feeds, titled "Protecting Your Information," with a link to see what apps they use and what information they have shared with those apps.”

Credit: Thibault Camus

Credit: Thibault Camus

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