Written by WenXin Shen
The Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal has resulted in companies removing Facebook log-in functions, advertisers canceling their deals with Facebook, consumers creating a #deletefacebook campaign and multiple lawsuits. You may be thinking: wait, what happened? Let’s examine how the scandal unfolded.
What is Cambridge Analytica and what does it do?
Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics firm that offers data brokerage, data mining, and data analysis services through strategic communication for either commercial or political needs. It is a limited liability corporation incorporated in New York and Washington DC, but is largely run as a British political consulting firm. It played an important role in the American President Donald Trump’s campaign, and according to The New York Times, the Trump campaign paid the firm $6 million during the 2016 election to create its communications strategy. The CEO of the firm, Alexander Nix, has said Cambridge Analytica was involved in 44 US political races in 2014. The company promises to offer effective methods of targeting voters to its customers, but its role in these campaigns is very controversial, given its use of hidden-camera and blackmail tactics.
What does Cambridge Analytica have to do with Facebook?
Recently, multiple media outlets have revealed Cambridge Analytica’s business practices. According to The New York Times and The Observer, under the pretext of academic studies, the company asked for some private information of Facebook users under the name of an external researcher; but in reality, the company gained access the personal information for political purposes, and used it to target voters. It is also responsible for spreading untrue political rumours on Facebook as a campaign tool.
How much information did Cambridge Analytica acquire from Facebook?
Cambridge Analytica accessed information from 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge. These data were acquired from 270,000 Facebook users who shared the data with the app “thisisyourdigitallife”.
How did people react?
After initially staying silent, Mark Zuckerberg moved into damage control mode. On behalf of his company, he claimed that Facebook was not aware of the illegal use of its users’ information by Cambridge Analytica. Rather, he stated that Facebook had been deceived. Presently, Facebook has banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform, and Zuckerberg promises that scandals like this will never happen again, and confidentiality of Facebook users’ information will be the primary occupation of his company. He also claims that his team has already begun a series of rigorous examinations on other apps of Facebook in order to ensure no more mistakes will happen. However, there are questions about when Facebook discovered this breach, why they chose to do nothing about it, and whether other companies have similarly used users’ private information without their consent.
According to BBC News, the company denies any wrongdoing. In fact, according to a footage filmed by Channel 4 News, its executives declared that what the company had done are totally acceptable and normal in the processes of political campaigns.
While the Trump White House has mostly steered clear of the issue, other countries have taken swift action. On March 23, 2018, the British High Court granted the Information Commissioner’s Office a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s London offices. It’s been widely agreed that Cambridge Analytica was involved in questionable practices. Several countries, including Canada, have launched investigations. However, it remains unclear whether Cambridge Analytica has broken the law or violated any Facebook policies.
Many suspects that the Facebook scandal is the tip of the iceberg, and that in reality, there are countless companies like Cambridge Analytica in the world. Many citizens are furious that information that they considered to be private could be used to manipulate them and distort democracy.