Facebook is taking a lot of heat recently because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The issue escalated to a level where Mark Zuckerberg had to publicly apologize after #deletefacebook campaign went viral. It all started with Brian Acton, Co-Founder of WhatsApp sending out a tweet which said, it’s time to delete Facebook. This rapidly gained the attention of people worldwide and in no time Delete Facebook campaign went viral around the globe.
However, delete Facebook wasn’t the original issue here and this was just a result of one of the biggest scandal in recent times. Before we look at what exactly happened, it’s better to understand what Cambridge Analytica is.
Cambridge Analytica is a British firm specializing in political consulting by collecting data using methods like data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. The company was started back in 2013 and is owned by SCL group. The company worked for many politicians in the past, most notably being Donald Trump presidential elections.
What is Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal?
In March of 2018, news broke out that Cambridge Analytica used an app to collect and share PII of over 50 million users worldwide. For those who don’t know, PII stands for Personal Identifiable Information and is a name given to data which can be used to identify, locate or contact an individual like Email IDs, Biometric information, Date of Birth, etc. As per Privacy Act, companies or organizations can’t share PII of their users with anyone.
Coming back to the scandal, it all started with Cambridge Analytica getting access to an app that asked Facebook users a set of questions and while doing that collected data related to their friends as well. The app also collected data on what users liked on Facebook effectively creating a profile of likes and dislikes. Cambridge Analytica could have used the data to target these users with effective political advertising. This is not the first-time candidates used social media to gain information on potential voters. Back in 2012, President Obama’s team did a similar thing to gain insights about the potential voters. However, there’s a minor difference between the two. President Obama’s team specified users why the data is being collected and how it will be used but Cambridge Analytica obtained this data without specifying the users what their data was being used for. Fast forward to December of 2015, The Guardian reported that United States politician Ted Cruz along with Cambridge Analytica is using PII of Facebook users without their permission in the election campaign. Facebook approached Cambridge Analytica and demanded that the data they have collected is in violation of their rules and should be deleted immediately. Here everything gets tricky. Cambridge Analytica never deleted the data even after being asked by Facebook to do so and Facebook, for some reasons never investigated if the data was deleted as promised. Fast forward again to 2018, The New York Times and The Guardian again ran the story and now with more evidence and they collaborated with each other to investigate and report the breach and to share details. Both papers took help from Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica turned whistleblower presented information that The New York Times and The Guardian used as supporting evidence for the scandal.
This is not the first time Cambridge Analytica has been involved in something like this. Back in 2016, the company was accused of supporting persuadable voters to vote to leave the European Union. Articles by The Observer and Guardian newspapers, respectively published in February and May 2017, speculated in detail that Cambridge Analytica had influenced both the Brexit/Vote Leave option in the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum.
Timeline of the events
In 2014, a University of Cambridge researcher Aleksandr Kogan created an app called This Is Your Digital Life which was downloaded by around 270,000 users. The app asked a series of questions and collected personal information. The app also searched the friend list of users and collected their user profiles as well totaling to more than 50 million data profiles. Kogan, without disclosing to the users, shared all the data with Cambridge Analytica.
In December of 2015, The Guardian revealed that Cambridge Analytica was using data collected by Kogan. Facebook stepped up and approached both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica and asked them to delete the data since it was acquired by wrong means. Neither Cambridge Analytica nor Kogan deleted the data as promised and Facebook never investigated if the data was deleted or not.
In March of 2018, Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica came forward and shared evidence that the data wasn’t deleted with both The Guardian and The New York Times. This sparked a fire that spread faster than wildfire forcing Mark Zuckerberg to come forward and share details on his Facebook account and interview with the CNN.
Aftermath of the scandal
The scandal was obviously one of the biggest in recent years. After Mark Zuckerberg came forward, he shared some of the steps Facebook is taking to restrict developer access to the personal data. Also, Mark said that his team is working with developers who launched their apps on the Facebook platform before 2014 and have asked them to submit a report stating the data they have access to or Facebook will remove them. Facebook is working on a system where if a user goes without using an app for more than 3 months, the company will remove developer access to all the information.
While Facebook is doing all this, the company has already been hit with a Class Action Lawsuit and FTC is investigating thoroughly into Facebook’s privacy policies. The UK’s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is attempting to obtain a warrant to search the offices of Cambridge Analytica. Meanwhile, a UK parliamentary committee has called Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence about its use of personal data. US senators have called on Zuckerberg to testify before Congress about how his company will protect users. If this was not enough, Amazon cut Cambridge Analytica’s access to Amazon Web Services in the aftermath of the scandal. Countries like India, Brazil, and Mexico are investigating on how anyone used data from the breach in political campaigning. India has taken further step by taking down the Cambridge Analytica local website India’s law and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad issued a public warning to Mark Zuckerberg, saying that Facebook was welcome in India but: “If data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of the Facebook system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent power in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you in India.”
Why Cambridge Analytica Scandal became such a big issue worldwide?
While Cambridge Analytica Scandal is the biggest scandal in recent years, it is definitely not the first data breach scandal so why did people react the way they did. In order to understand this, we need to back up to 2016 US Presidential Elections and how Facebook was accused of spreading fake news. This was combined by some early Facebook engineers coming forward and claiming that they regret building Facebook. Another issue that came up after 2016 was Russia’s involvement in the elections and how they might have rigged the elections using illegal Facebook Ads to target voters. Meanwhile, there were researches and papers that highlighted the negative effects of overusing social media and how it makes a person feel bad about themselves. There were many pieces of research which pointed out the fact that just browsing through your social media account can make you feel bad about yourself. Another research pointed out how social media has just become a way for people to show-off or simply be pretentious.
So, if you look, these stories had already kept Facebook on the edge and the Cambridge Analytica breach just pushed Facebook off.
What Aleksandr Kogan has to say on this matter
The whole scandal started because of Aleksandr Kogan’s app but he thinks that he’s just a scapegoat for both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. In an interview with BBC, Kogan told,
My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica when… we thought we were doing something that was really normal. We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the terms of service. One of the great mistakes I did here was I just didn’t ask enough questions.
Kogan also added that the accuracy of the data has been greatly exaggerated by Cambridge Analytica and had been more likely to hurt than help Trump’s campaign.
Facebook is now taking steps to restrict access as much as possible and in some cases cut off access as well. While that’s sure is a start, Facebook is miles away from gaining back the trust they lost due to this scandal. For users, it is high time to take a good look at your Facebook profile and block access to anything suspicious. You can start this by going to Facebook’s App settings page and unclick every category you don’t want the app to access, which includes bio, birthday, family, religious views, if you are online, posts on your timeline, activities, and interests. You can also make sure not to use Facebook to login in into third-party website essentially giving them access to all your personal data.
Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal is an eye opener to everyone who randomly opens quizzes and games on Facebook giving them complete access to your data. It’s high time you start reading what access an app is asking for and give access to only the information that you’re comfortable sharing. Also, follow a general rule of thumb, if something looks suspicious then it probably is. Go with your gut feeling and take a good look at an app or game before you give it any access.
Facebook sure holds the responsibility for what happened, but it is your job as well to make sure your data is safe and you don’t give access to every game, app or service.
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