The Cambridge Analytica story and what we might learn from it

Why is Facebook free to us, the users?

Because we are the product that they sell to advertisers. The more the advertisers know about us, the better they can target their products to us – simple.  The Facebook business model is ‘personal data mining for advertising’ – we all know that.  How is that creeping into political influence broking?

Read on, if you haven’t followed the Cambridge Analytica saga.

What is the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook related scandal?

Cambridge Analytica (now insolvent, 1st May 2018) called themselves a”global election management agency” – they were hired by Trump’s 2016 election campaign and gained access to the private data of over 50 million Facebook users. This company was also hired by the Vote Leave campaign.  How they worked is shown in a diagram here.

What did they do?

This firm used a variety of ways to analyse the personal data captured by Facebook, one of which was those inconsequential Facebook quizzes, like “Find out which Harry Potter house you should be in!” or “Find out what you’d look like as the opposite gender!”

These quizzes were used to identify types (personality profiles) of American voters – what they saw in advertising (vote for Trump, or pushing his ideologies) was then tailored to these findings, and potentially influenced the voting behaviour of 50 million people.

Could Facebook wriggle out of being held responsible?

Yes. What is interesting is that this wasn’t actually a security issue, or anything covert.  Everything was disclosed in the small print – it was only possible to do this because users were ignoring Facebook’s terms and conditions (which we all agreed to, of course).

In the case of using these quizzes to build individual profiles, there were also alert notifications – actually when they took the quizzes – and people still ignored them.

Well, you do, don’t you?  That is what they relied on.

Details of exactly what they did are in this article.  Interestingly, how they micro-messaged the people, what they paid etc. was actually released into the public domain by the UK House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

The select committee chairman had a set of pertinent questions to Facebook when he wrote to the company. This letter is published openly – no reply as yet, unsurprisingly.

So our personal data is actually traded?

The picture below is a quote sent to SCL (Cambridge Analytica owners) for personal information harvested from Facebook and supplied, following profiling.

data traded The Cambridge Analytica story and what we might learn from it

Profiling is an art, really.

So how were these profiles constructed? What were the ‘data points’ asked for and supplied?

First of all, the basics –  first name, surname, male or female and where you live were provided.

Then comes the interesting bit: “big five personality scores” the acronym for this is  OCEAN (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) – presumably there are indicators of each of these which correspond to how you responded to quiz questions (take out the DSM manual and have a happy few hours of amusement, followed by outrage).

I must say I was pretty ‘gobsmacked’ at this – someone else is deciding whether I am neurotic or conscientious on the basis of opinions I might have inadvertently revealed as I wrote comments on Facebook?

Then there was a Republican party support score supplied – presumably if you directly indicated that – or was that estimated? – no way of knowing, and they are not telling.

There must have been a set of questions in the quiz, or simply a Facebook activity ‘ledger’ for the individual’s political involvement/enthusiasm – this was also scored on a scale, and supplied to Cambridge Analytica.

Interestingly, there was also a score for ‘political volatility’ – would love to see what indicator was seen as a proxy for this.

Additional data points are shown as follows : date of birth; ZIP code; residential address, or any component of this; and answers to political quizzes, if completed.

Pretty comprehensive, you might say.  On this basis, the Trump campaign decided what to show you in the way of advertising.

Good.  Misguided? Who knows.

So they are trading our personal data – what can we do?

Use the platforms, by all means, but never give away locations, personal tastes, favourite music or books, band preferences or anything that reflects your inner life, because they can use that to sell you advertising.

If you are away, don’t let anyone know where and for how long. Thieves scan social media sites to target properties left vacant. Also how much you travel is a proxy for your income levels.

And never take a quiz. If you have nothing on the platform about your age, and don’t show your relationships, that gives them no markers for selling specific things to you.

Edit your profile.  Confine who can see your stuff to people you know.

And only ‘talk’ to people on Facebook who you have met, or you are related to – people you trust.

Don’t accept invitations from strangers.

If like me (and some five billion others), you can write in another language using the English alphabet, you will really confuse the robots trying to analyse what you wrote!

Footnote : where did the shareholders and directors go after Cambridge Analytica bit the dust on 1st May 2018?

Alexander Taylor, a former director of Cambridge Analytica, was appointed director of Emerdata on 28 March 2018.

In March 2018, Jennifer Mercer and Rebekah Anne Mercer became directors of Emerdata Limited – this is the Mercers who are behind Steve Bannon of Breitbart, the right wing newspaper, in the US.

Bannon himself sold his shares in Cambridge Analytica in April 2018.

Leave a comment