“The Cambridge Analytica Con”
Yasha Levine, The Baffler, March 21, 2018
What Cambridge Analytica is accused of doing — siphoning people's data, compiling profiles, and then deploying that information to influence them to vote a certain way — Facebook and Silicon Valley giants like Google do every day, indeed, every minute we're logged on, on a far greater and more invasive scale.
Today's internet business ecosystem is built on for-profit surveillance, behavioral profiling, manipulation and influence. That's the name of the game. It isn't just Facebook or Cambridge Analytica or even Google. It's Amazon. It's eBay. It's Palantir. It's Angry Birds. It's Movie Pass. It's Lockheed Martin. It's every app you've ever downloaded. Every phone you bought. Every program you watched on your on-demand cable TV package.
All of these games, apps, and platforms profit from the concerted siphoning up of all data trails to produce profiles for all sorts of micro-targeted influence ops in the private sector. …
Silicon Valley of course keeps a tight lid on this information, but you can get a glimpse of the kinds of data our private digital dossiers contain by trawling through their patents. Take, for instance, a series of patents Google filed in the mid-2000s for its Gmail-targeted advertising technology. The language, stripped of opaque tech jargon, revealed that just about everything we enter into Google's many products and platforms — from email correspondence to Web searches and internet browsing — is analyzed and used to profile users in an extremely invasive and personal way. Email correspondence is parsed for meaning and subject matter. Names are matched to real identities and addresses. Email attachments — say, bank statements or testing results from a medical lab — are scraped for information. Demographic and psychographic data, including social class, personality type, age, sex, political affiliation, cultural interests, social ties, personal income, and marital status[,] is extracted. In one patent, I discovered that Google apparently had the ability to determine if a person was a legal U.S. resident or not. It also turned out you didn't have to be a registered Google user to be snared in this profiling apparatus. All you had to do was communicate with someone who had a Gmail address. …
The enormous commercial interest that political campaigns have shown in social media has earned them privileged attention from Silicon Valley platforms in return. Facebook runs a separate political division specifically geared to help its customers target and influence voters.
The company even allows political campaigns to upload their own lists of potential voters and supporters directly into Facebook's data system. So armed, digital political operatives can then use those people's social networks to identify other prospective voters who might be supportive of their candidate — and then target them with a whole new tidal wave of ads.
Both of the Establishment parties have been using surveillance companies' dossiers to target their propaganda since at least 2008 and now sink tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of dollars on such projects in every election cycle. So it's not too likely that we're going to see Congress regulate technology companies in any way that would interfere with the smooth operation of the mechanism or even slightly alienate the power brokers. Zuckerberg is pleading with Congress to pass regulatory legislation because he is now confident that he is ready to play the game of regulatory capture and will be better at it than most of his competitors.
Inside Higher Ed ran an opinion piece today complaining about Facebook's attempt to shift the blame for the unlicensed transfer of personal data about its users onto the Cambridge University senior research associate who nominally made the agreement with Facebook:
“Facebook's Professor Problem”
Mark Bartholomew, Inside Higher Ed, March 28, 2018
The best practices of academia need to find more purchase at Facebook. For studies on humans, it is necessary in the university setting to obtain informed consent. As a private business, Facebook is not obligated to comply with this standard, and it doesn't. Instead, it need only make sure that the terms of any potential human experimentation are covered under its capacious and unreadable terms of service.
By contrast, in the realm of academic research, scientists cannot wave a bunch of impenetrable legalese under a test subject's nose and receive a blank check to do what they want. Moreover, university internal review boards act as a safeguard, making sure that even when consent is informed, the benefits of any proposed research outweigh their costs to the participants. University IRBs need to make sure they fulfill their responsibilities when it comes to experimenting on social media users.
More importantly, it is time that Facebook starts following academics' best practices rather than use them for cover.
Although Bartholomew identifies a significant ethical failure on Facebook's part, that particular failure isn't the one at the heart of the current controversy and doesn't fully explain what the academic involved did wrong. Aleksandr Kogan's principal ethical offense was his participation in a money- and data-laundering scheme. He received money from Cambridge Analytica and used it to pay participants in his mostly fake research project, the users of his personality-quiz app, in exchange for which they gave Kogan full access to their Facebook profiles and those of their “Facebook friends.” Kogan collected the data and passed it back to Cambridge Analytica. He provided the cover, the false front, for what was basically Cambridge Analytica's straightforward purchase of parts of Facebook's dossiers on some of their users.
Neither Cambridge Analytica nor Facebook wanted to acknowledge publicly that the purpose of the project was to improve the targeting of political propaganda to gullible American Facebook users. To conceal this purpose, Cambridge Analytica concocted the cover story and hired Kogan to implement it.
Kogan claims that he didn't know anything about what Cambridge Analytica was doing with the data he shared with them but simply felt that they were entitled to use that data however they liked, since they had paid for it. But I doubt he's that stupid.
Surveillance is essential to Facebook's business model. It collects and compiles enormous amounts of personal data on its users (and non-users), and it sells to its customers — advertisers, academics, political operatives, and others — the privilege of creating applications that collect and compile still more personal data.
In theory, Facebook doesn't actually sell its dossiers to its customers. It only licenses the data, or the right to collect data, retaining control over any further dissemination so as to maintain its ownership of its most valuable intellectual property. In practice, Facebook has no effective means of preventing its customers from copying and distributing any data they have legitimately obtained. The licenses that it relies on turn out to be quite difficult to enforce.
In 2014, a senior research associate at Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan, wrote a Facebook app called “thisismydigitallife.” Superficially, it was a personality quiz, but the people who signed up to take it gave Kogan permission to access their Facebook profiles and the Facebook profiles of the people they had friended. Facebook approved this arrangement but stipulated that the data that Kogan collected be used solely for the purpose of academic research.
Kogan agreed to this stipulation and proceeded to collect millions of Facebook profiles through the app. Instead of mining the data at Cambridge, however, he set up a company called Global Science Research and carried out his supposedly academic research there. Global Science Research had a million-dollar contract with another company, SCL Group. One of SCL's subsidiaries, SCL Elections, had recently secured funding to set up a new corporation, Cambridge Analytica, to explore the use of data-mining techniques to find reliable correlations between the personalities and “likes” of individual Facebook users on one hand and their political views and behaviors on the other. Because Kogan's research was funded, at least in part, by Cambridge Analytica, he apparently saw nothing wrong with sharing with his employers the data on which his research was based.
It's quite possible that sharing this data with a commercial enterprise violated Kogan's understanding with Facebook. It may also be a violation of UK data-protection laws, because Kogan asked the people who used his app only for their permission to collect and study their personal data, not for permission to share it with (or sell it to) third parties.
However, the only thing that prevented Cambridge Analytica from obtaining the same data directly from Facebook is that the license would probably have cost them much more money. Nothing in Facebook's notoriously lax, mutable, and labyrinthine privacy policies would have obstructed such a transaction if the price was right. Facebook's dossiers are their principal product, and selling access to them is their principal source of revenue.
Facebook now claims that Kogan and Cambridge Analytica have violated its terms of service and has closed their Facebook accounts. Lawsuits and threats of lawsuits are now flying in all directions, and some members of Congress are threatening to launch terrifying inquisitions into the monstrous abuse of the American electoral process that Cambridge Analytica supposedly perpetrated with the assistance of Kogan's data. However, there are now so many unlicensed copies of the data that there is no way to ensure that all of them will ever be erased, or even located. Now that arbitrarily large amounts of data can be copied quickly and inexpensively, and now that multiple backups of valuable data are the norm, the idea of restricting the distribution of data through licensing is a non-starter. It can't possibly work.
There's another reason why the lawsuits and the fulminations of member of Congress are idle, from the point of view of ordinary Facebook users (and non-users): Surveillance is essential to Facebook's business model. If Facebook stopped collecting and compiling personal data and erased its current stores, it would quickly go bankrupt. But once the dossiers exist, it is inevitable that they will be copied and disseminated, and once they are copied and disseminated, it is impossible ever to recover and destroy all of the copies, data-protection and privacy laws notwithstanding.
Instead (as Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook post on this subject makes clear), Facebook will continue to build up massive dossiers as fast as it can and will continue to use the information in those dossiers as it sees fit. The steps that Zuckerberg describes as “protecting users' data” are all designed to protect Facebook's proprietary interest in everyone's personal data, to prevent or at least obstruct the propagation of the dossiers to unworthy outsiders.
“Suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from Facebook”
Paul Grewal, Facebook Newsroom, March 16, 2018
“How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions”
Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore, and Carole Cadwalladr, The New York Times, March 17, 2018
“Cambridge Analytica Responds to Facebook Announcement”
Cambridge Analytica, March 17, 2018
“‘I Made Steve Bannon's Psychological Warfare Tool’: Meet the Data War Whistleblower”
Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian, March 18, 2018
“Cambridge Analytica's Ad Targeting Is the Reason Facebook Exists”
Jason Koebler, Motherboard, March 19, 2018
Though Cambridge Analytica's specific use of user data to help a political campaign is something we haven't publicly seen on this scale before, it is exactly the type of use that Facebook's platform is designed for, has facilitated for years, and continues to facilitate every day. At its core, Facebook is an advertising platform that makes almost all of its money because it and the companies that use its platform know so much about you.
Facebook continues to be a financially successful company precisely because its platform has enabled the types of person-specific targeting that Cambridge Analytica did. …
“The incentive is to extract every iota of value out of users,” Hartzog [Woodrow Hartzog, Professor of Law and Computer Science at Northeastern University] said. “The service is built around those incentives. You have to convince people to share as much information as possible so you click on as many ads as possible and then feel good about doing it. This is the operating ethos for the entire social internet.”
“Facebook's Surveillance Machine”
Zeynep Tufekci, The New York Times, March 19, 2018
Billions of dollars are being made at the expense of our public sphere and our politics, and crucial decisions are being made unilaterally, and without recourse or accountability.
“Then Why Is Anyone Still on Facebook?”
Wolf Richter, Wolf Street, March 20, 2018
So now there's a hue and cry in the media about Facebook, put together by reporters who are still active on Facebook and who have no intention of quitting Facebook. There has been no panicked rush to “delete” accounts. There has been no massive movement to quit Facebook forever. Facebook does what it does because it does it, and because it's so powerful that it can do it. A whole ecosystem around it depends on the consumer data it collects. …
Yes, there will be the usual ceremonies … CEO Zuckerberg may get to address the Judiciary Committee in Congress. The questions thrown at him for public consumption will be pointed. But behind the scenes, away from the cameras, there will be the usual backslapping between lawmakers and corporations. Publicly, there will be some wrist-slapping and some lawsuits, and all this will be settled and squared away in due time. Life will go on. Facebook will continue to collect the data because consumers continue to surrender their data to Facebook voluntarily. And third parties will continue to have access to this data. …
People who are still active on Facebook cannot be helped. They should just enjoy the benefits of having their lives exposed to the world and serving as a worthy tool and resource for corporate interests, political shenanigans, election manipulators, jealous exes, and other facts of life.
“Facebook Sued by Investors over Voter-Profile Harvesting”
Christie Smythe and Kartikay Mehrotra, Bloomberg Technology, March 20, 2018
“The Researcher Who Gave Cambridge Analytica Facebook Data on 50 Million Americans Thought It Was ‘Totally Normal’”
Kaleigh Rogers, Motherboard, March 21, 2018
Kogan said he was under the impression that what he was doing was completely normal.
“What was communicated to me strongly was that thousands and maybe tens of thousands of apps were doing the exact same thing and that this was a pretty normal use case and a normal situation for usage of Facebook data,” Kogan said.
“Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Vows to Bolster Privacy amid Cambridge Analytica Crisis”
Sheera Frenkel and Kevin Roose, The New York Times, March 21, 2018
“It's Too Late”
Jason Koebler, Motherboard, March 21, 2018