It is not the first time we have heard of a Facebook data breach, so why exactly should we be paying attention to this new one? The answer involves psychological processes, personal information, the US presidential election, Cambridge Analytica, Russia, and Brexit.
Facebook is the most important social network at the moment, followed very closely by Instagram (also a property of Zuckerberg). Around 2 billion people have an active Facebook account. That means that Facebook has information about a quarter of the world, what we like, how we like it and when we want it, and they basically got it with our permission.
What’s the big deal? We download apps every day, we grand them permission to access our phones and data all the time, so why should we care about this? Because information is worth more than gold nowadays, and Cambridge Analytica knows it.
What is Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica is a private company created in 2013; they combine data mining and data analysis for electoral processes, including strategic communication. Fundamentally, they gather data to understand voter’s behaviors and desires.
Before being named Cambridge Analytica, they were known as SCL Group (Strategic Communication Laboratories), and they collected data for governments and military organizations worldwide in defense of social change (at least that’s what they say on their webpage). In 2013 they hired researchers from Cambridge University and then created Cambridge Analytica.
For a while, Cambridge Analytica had been identified as a part of the huge machinery of fake news campaigns, using honey traps, spying candidates, and even hiring prostitutes to diminish their public image. This company is linked to the Brexit campaign and has openly worked with personalities like Ted Cruz and the recently elected President of the United States, Donald Trump.
Facebook Data Breach was Deliberately Orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica
The British public-service television broadcaster, Channel 4, conducted an investigation on Cambridge Analytica, specifically its CEO, Alexander Nix. The undercover report showed Nix telling a fake Sri Lanka client that his company could easily entrap politicians by setting an encounter with attractive women and filming the meeting to use as a bribe or to expose them publicly and, sleazily, lessen their popularity.
Of course, Cambridge Analytica assured that what Channel 4 had published was edited and “grossly scripted” to misrepresent the nature of the conversation and the purpose of their business. But if we read a little bit more about this whole issue, it seems we are the main characters in a Black Mirror episode.
How is Facebook involved in this Mess?
Remember that Facebook personality quiz that came up mid-2016? It was basically a digital version of The Big 5 Questionnaire, it calculated a measure of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, so the user could comprehend their personality better… Or so people thought. Results were used to identify the personality types of US voters and potentially influence their behavior in the presidential election in late 2016.
This test not only harvested the results of 270.000 Facebook users but also their friends, giving Cambridge Analytica unprecedented access to, at least, 50 million users in the US through the snowball effect, according to Christopher Wylie, currently known as the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower of the Facebook data breach.
Wylie affirms that Cambridge Analytica worked closely with the US State Department and the Pentagon, creating psychological profiles of 230 million Americans, and even helped to distribute Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails in 2016, conveniently becoming a subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged Russian interference of the 2016 US elections. Quite sordid.
Facebook: Weak Data Protection Efforts
Sandy Parakilas, a former operations manager at Facebook who was responsible for policing data breaches, assured that he had warned senior executives at the company about their lax approach to data protection, and confirms Wylie’s story.
Parakilas said that Facebook has zero control over the data that the company gives to outside developers and they have knowledge of the situation, but didn’t really do anything to change it. Simon Milner, Facebook’s UK director of policy, told British MPs last month that Facebook never provided data to Cambridge Analytic. He recognized that they had lots of data, but it was gathered by themselves. It’s like saying Cambridge Analytica told them they were taking information from Facebook users, but Facebook just watched them do so, not moving a finger. If this were true, the Facebook data breach was bound to happen long ago.
Facebook Data Breach: Far From Solved
This story is still unfolding. Members of Congress have called on Mark Zuckerberg to testify before them about the protection of Facebook user’s data and the head of the European Parliament said they would investigate the misuse of the data. Even Theresa May’s spokesman said she is very concerned about these revelations.
Curiously, or perhaps, quite conveniently, the Facebook stock plunged 5% this Tuesday, but they had sold nearly 5 million by Monday before the whole Cambridge Analytica issue about te Facebook data breach exploded.
This situation has to teach us something. We, as users, must read the full terms and conditions apps show us before using them or installing them on our smartphones. Constantly check the access those apps have to your personal information and revoke them when no longer in use, and start using an ad blocker to limit the amount of advertising we see every day.