Facebook/Cambridge Analytica: Dirty Deeds Done On The Cheap

There’s more to be concerned about in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle than Facebook’s lax attitude to data harvesting. PAT PILCHER backgrounds the issue – and what we should really be concerned about.

As the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal gains momentum, it’s worth taking stock before several issues get trampled in the social media stampede to crucify Facebook.

In 2014, a professor Aleksandr Kogan asked Facebook users to take a personality quiz. He claimed it was for academic purposes. Some 270,000-people signed up and took the quiz. By doing so, they gave permission to access data for their Facebook friends. This saw the data gathered from the ‘survey’ grow from 270,000 individuals to over 50 million people.

The situation got reported as a data breach, but this isn’t the case. People provided the information. no servers or passwords got hacked. As is so often the case in cyber security, people were the weakest link.

While this sounds like standard Facebook fare, it took an ugly turn. Kogan passed the data over to Cambridge Analytica who, it turns out, had the morals of a dog on a croquet lawn.

This was when Facebook’s terms and conditions got breached. Facebook say when they discovered what’d happened they cancelled Kogan’s access to Facebook. They also demanded that the data got deleted.

It wasn’t.

According to the New York Times, Cambridge Analytica used the data to create tools used in the US 2016 general election. This gave the Trump campaign the ability to gain insights into key voter motivations and issues unavailable to competing candidates.

The reaction of the public and regulators to this news was both swift and damming.

Facebook has lost a colossal US$60 billion (NZ$83 billion) in market value over the past two days. The #deletefacebook campaign has been growing ever since. Putting that into perspective, US$60 billion is a third of New Zealand’s GDP (NZ$185 billion). It is more than the entire capitalisation of Tesla (US$52 billion). The Federal Trade Commission is investigating. Politicians in the US and UK have called for Facebook to front up.

What is amazing is that Facebook’s reputation for security has never been great. Facebook has long been awash with ‘surveys’ and dodgy schemes, yet everyone seems so shocked and outraged that data got harvested. Many who took the personality test did so knowing of Facebook’s poor reputation for privacy and security.

Most worrying was the fact that the data got used by Cambridge Analytica in the US election. Trump’s political canvassers could door knock armed with specific data for individual addresses. This allowed them to customise their pitch to counter the concerns of residents at each address.

The distinction between smart campaigning and interfering in democratic process may seem blurry. It gets thrown into sharp relief when looking at Cambridge Analytica’s track record.

Their CEO, Alexander Nix, got suspended. This was after he’d disclosed the unethical tactics used in political campaigns to the UK’s Channel 4.

These tactics ranged from the dodgy, such as putting graffiti slogans around Trinidad to generate a perception that the PM had listened to young voters to gain their votes, to the scary. In Latvia, Cambridge Analytica subsidiary SCL, ran a disinformation campaign intended to fuel ethnic tensions between Latvians and ethnic Russians. The campaign blamed the ethnic Russians for Latvia’s economic issues. While this propelled SCL’s client to victory, blood got spilt. The potential for violence and riots was very real.

Corrupt dealings follow Cambridge Analytica and subsidiaries around like a bad smell.

On the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, SCL got contacted to conduct research on how to reduce crime. SCL offered to help the then PM, Stephenson King with his 2011 election campaign free of charge.

There was a small catch. After King got re-elected, his government would pay SCL US$1.9 million to run a public-health campaign. The actual cost of the health campaign was US$1 million. The $900,000 was payment for the work carried out by SCL. This was to come out of the public purse rather than Kings party coffers. Imagine the fallout in New Zealand if something similar came to light?

As terrible as the above seems, that’s small change compared to what Channel 4 uncovered.

In meetings with Cambridge Analytica CEO, Alexander Nix and a Channel 4 journalist posing as a member of a wealthy Sri Lankan family, Nix detailed some of the dirty tricks used for clients.

It turns out that Cambridge Analytica worked with former spies from Britain and Israel to dig up political dirt. Nix then disclosed that they’d go a lot further than mere investigations. Nix also suggested that one method used to de-rail a political opponent would be a sex scandal. Nix was recorded saying that they’d send girls around to the candidate’s house.

While it is easy to be angry at Facebook as they’re such obvious targets, the reality is far more worrying. Providing a company with little to no moral compass with such detailed data to give them the means to interfere with democratic process should be a huge concern.

Unfortunately, the public too busy venting at Facebook. They’re not thinking about the real issue. We need to ensure that this misuse of data in democratic processes, never happens again. Safeguards need to be implemented to ensure that data used for political purposes is ethically sourced. Election tactics need to be transparent and open for inspection.

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