A simple personality quiz was all it took for the company to harvest more than 50 million profiles
There’s a new whistleblower in town. Joining the ranks of world-famous names such as Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning, the new kid on the block is a 28-year-old Canadian data genius with a pink crewcut and a septum piercing: he’s called Christopher Wylie, and his revelations will make you want to delete your Facebook account.
Wylie is one of the men responsible for arguably the biggest scandal in Facebook’s 14-year history – as unveiled by The Observer on Saturday (March 17). In a series of explosive articles and videos released over the past few days, Wylie has revealed the techniques he and his Breitbart-affiliated employer Cambridge Analytica used to harvest millions of Facebook profiles. This, it is alleged, helped the company specifically target and influence groups of the electorate on social media, particularly during Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign.
As Wylie puts it: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.” But how did that happen – and as Facebook users, can we guard against it?
What exactly is Cambridge Analytica?
It’s the company for which Christopher Wylie worked, owned by a billionaire called Robert Mercer. From 2014-2016 Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon was on its board. Starting in 2014, it developed a technique to use Facebook data from personality quizzes (provided by another company, Global Science Research) to compile an algorithm that personally profiled and targeted voters in the USA. Christopher Wylie was one of the masterminds behind its operation.
The company has denied that it harvested Facebook data, and said that it didn’t use any Facebook information during the 2016 presidential election. It has also said that it complied with Facebook’s terms of service and no longer has the data it received from Global Science Research.
How did Cambridge Analytica ‘harvest’ profiles for data analysis?
Your profile could have been ‘harvested’ without your knowledge. Wylie says that if you were friends with someone who used the personality-testing app ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ – which paid American Facebook users to participate – then that friend would have consented for Global Science Research (GSR) to have data about both them and you. Wylie says that Cambridge Analytica acquired this information – although it was ostensibly gathered for academic research.
This data included things you ‘liked’ on the site and any public information users may have permitted in their privacy settings. It didn’t even require photos, status updates or comments to build up a picture of any one user’s race, gender, sexual orientation – and, says The Observer, it could even predict even “intelligence and childhood trauma” or “vulnerability to substance abuse”.
In an illustratively random example, Wylie said: “People who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.”
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By working out what people were likely to like and dislike based off their quiz results and their data, Cambridge Analytica were able to craft detailed profiles based on limited Facebook data, and were able to match it with voter records – because to take the quiz, you had to be an eligible US voter. The company knew who you were likely to vote for, but it also knew how to adapt its advertising to change your mind.
How did Cambridge Analytica’s results help influence voters?
Wylie says that using the technique in the infographic above, it was possible to match tens of millions of Facebook profiles to electoral rolls, and then target individual users with “highly personalised advertising”. It’s understood that Cambridge Analytica pitched to help fund the Leave.EU campaign prior to Brexit, and had dealings with a company called AggregateIQ in a similar tale to the one revealed this weekend.
How has Facebook responded to the revelations?
Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica, the test creator Aleksandr Kogan and even whistleblower Chris Wylie over the revelations – despite Wylie’s claims that they’ve known about the process for two years.
Meanwhile, Facebook has said Kogan “gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels”, and that latterly he “did not subsequently abide by our rules” – i.e. Kogan shared the data with third parties.
Should I delete my Facebook account?
If you’ve been using Facebook since the beginning then you’ve already been living in a world of highly targeted advertising for years: it’s a phenomenon most internet users are used to by now.
The scary thing about Cambridge Analytica’s method is that users weren’t being shown stuff they’d been googling or browsing on Amazon – they had been profiled without even knowing it. If Facebook was an American voter’s primary way of learning about the two candidates in 2016’s Presidential election – something 26% of Brits admitted to during the 2017 UK election – then these voters were individually being sold Trump based on the kind of person Cambridge Analytica knew they were.
In the video below, Theresa Hong – a member of Trump’s digital election campaign – demonstrates how working mothers, one of many targeted groups in the Trump campaign, were sold their future President in a “warm and fuzzy” video advert in which Trump never spoke. There were many such targeted groups, each of whom would have been selectively shown the advert most likely to convince them of Trump’s suitability for the role.
To avoid this kind of data breach being used to target you, you need to be very careful about the data permissions you give to your connected apps – but even if you do that, you’re still at risk of your friends offering your data to third parties when they give their apps certain permissions. Highly personalised adverts are probably on your feed already.
So should you delete your Facebook account? Let’s hear from Theresa Hong again. “Without Facebook”, the Trump campaigner said last year, “we wouldn’t have won.”
You have your answer.