Donald Trump’s presidential campaign hired American data-analysis firm Cambridge Analytica and its London-based parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories to gather data from over 50 million Facebook profiles to predict the behavior of American voters, according to investigations by The New York Times and The Guardian.
Over the weekend, Christopher Wylie, a 28-year-old Canadian who helped start up Cambridge, told The Guardian that in 2014 he began working with University of Cambridge neuroscience professor and head of Global Science Science Aleksandr Kogan, who developed a personality testing Facebook app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” Under the guide of a researcher, he received permission from the social networking company to mine data from its users, but he allegedly took data from millions of people without their consent and then sold that information to Cambridge, a violation of Facebook’s terms.
In 2015, The Guardian reported that Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign used data from Cambridge, and The Intercept published a piece about data acquisition in 2017. Yet this is the first time Facebook has acknowledged data gathering from American profiles.
Last Friday, Facebook posted a statement announcing they were suspending the accounts of both Cambridge and SCL, along with those of Wylie and and Kogan. Paul Grewal, vice president and deputy general counsel at Facebook, wrote that Kogan legally acquired data user permission, but he broke the company’s rules by passing information along to Cambridge. “We will take legal action if necessary to hold them responsible and accountable for any unlawful behavior.”
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Facebook officials and Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix have denied any wrongdoing. And it remains unknown how much the data affected Trump’s campaign efforts. But the recent news cycle has once again ignited heated debate on the impact of data companies using Facebook to profile of citizens.
Here, what we know about how Cambridge Analytica allegedly harvested data from Facebook – and what it all means.
When did Cambridge get the idea to gather data from a personality testing Facebook app?
In 2007, psychologists Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell from Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre began using a Facebook quiz they developed called myPersonality to study personality traits of consenting users, according to The Guardian. The app determined gender, age and sex, opening doors for psychologists to consider different ways to connect “likes” with personality traits. Their research received notice from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
Six years later, in 2013, they published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it caught the attention of a fashion forecasting PhD student named Christopher Wylie. He was already interested in consumer and demographic data – and he had a background in politics – so he was curious if he could use this approach to understand why Canada’s Liberal Democrats were losing elections. “I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behavior, and it suddenly made sense,” Wylie told The Guardian. “Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems they’re absent-minded professors and hippies…. And it just clicked all of a sudden.” Wylie went on to work at the British behavioral research company called SCL Group, a contractor to the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense, whose subsidiary SCL Elections would later receive $15 million in funding from CEO of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies and Republic donor, Robert Mercer, to become Cambridge.
Why was the Trump campaign interested in personality testing?
In his interview with The Guardian, Wylie said he met then-Breitbart editor-in-chief Steve Bannon in the fall of 2013, before he publicly announced his becoming campaign manager for Trump. The two hit it off and agreed that changing American politics required changing culture. “Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically,” Wylie remembered telling Bannon. “So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly,’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.” Bannon was impressed and influenced Mercer and his daughter Rebekah to meet Nix and Wylie in New York. According to Wylie, Bannon and Rebekah liked him in particular because he is gay. “He saw us as early adopters,” Wylie said. “He figured, if you can get the gays on board, everyone else will follow.” The Cambridge crew pitched Mercer on the advancements of personality testing for political gain.
How did Cambridge bypass traditional analytical research?
Mercer bit. But, according to The New York Times, Wylie thought that instead of using traditional tactics of analyzing voting records and consumer purchase histories to predict voter behaviors, his firm needed to figure out the psychological traits to really understand the voter’s mindset. Wylie contacted Kosinski to use the myPersonality app, but negotiations fell through. And so Kogan stepped forward and offered to replicate the research and build his own app, called thisisyourdigitallife. “Kosinski was asking for $500,000 for the IP but Kogan said he could replicate it and just harvest his own set of data,” Wylie told The Guardian. (According to that same article, Kosinski said the fee would have gone to further research.) In June 2014, SCL Group entered into a contract with Kogan and his company Global Science Research. His job was to use his app to collect raw Facebook profiles for Cambridge, which would provide that information for the Trump campaign. “Rules don’t matter for them,” Wylie told The New York Times about his bosses. “For them, this is a way, and it’s all fair.”
How did Cambridge harvest profiles?
Kogan’s idea to gather data from Facebook profiles came in large part thanks to Kosinski, Stillwell and their colleague Thore Graepel, who in their research found ways to determine someone’s intelligence or political views based on what cosmetics or food they enjoyed. The trio feared the potential misuse of research to gather data from nonconsenting users on social media platforms. “Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even your Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation or political views that an individual may not have intended to share,” they wrote, according to The Guardian.
But in early 2014, Kogan’s app turned that fear into a reality. At first, about 270,000 Facebook users voluntarily downloaded the personality quiz. But since the service’s default terms allowed apps to gather data from friends, he ended up pilfering over 50 million profiles. Cambridge would find that 30 million offered enough information to build a psychographic profile.
How did the Trump campaign use the data?
The Facebook data was combined with voter records and other sources to help determine how users could be targeted with personalized advertising. Former officials for the Trump campaign claim that Cambridge helped target audiences for ads and fundraising, while mapping out where their candidate should visit to garner the most support across the country. The extent of how it was used, however, is not yet clear.
What will the consequences be for Cambridge Analytica?
Both Facebook and Kogan claim they gained access to the profiles in legitimate ways, but they disagree on whether Kogan followed the company’s rules that restricted him from selling the information to a third party in Cambridge. Kogan remains a faculty member at Cambridge University and an associate professor at St. Petersburg University. According to The Guardian, he has also received grants from the Russian government to research “stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks.”
As for Cambridge Analytica, the company is now being investigated by the British Parliament to learn whether it violated privacy laws by obtaining Facebook data, according to The New York Times. U.S. investigators have questioned Nix about his involvement in the Trump campaign, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller III is seeking emails of Cambridge Analytica employees as part of his investigation into Russian influence on the presidential election.
What’s next for the company?
On Monday, British TV’s Channel 4 News released footage of Nix and his senior executives talking about their involvement in secret campaigns. A reporter had posed as a fixer looking to win elections in Sri Lanka, and according to the news organization, was told they would be able to facilitate bribes, adding that they could send some “very beautiful” Ukrainian girls to the homes of political rivals, apparently in order to create dirt on them. “We’re used to operating through different vehicles, in the shadows, and I look forward to building a very long-term and secretive relationship with you,” Nix told the undercover reporter. Cambridge Analytica denied the allegations. “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes, or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever,” they said in a statement to Channel 4.