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.