On that whole Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Thing

In the big sto­ry that explod­ed last week, and has been doing the rounds for a while. A data ana­lyt­ics / per­son­al pro­fil­ing / elec­tion cam­paign assis­tance com­pa­ny used per­son­al and pri­vate data they scrapped from Face­book via a researchers quiz app. They then used this in to help influ­ence the US elec­tion, and pos­si­bly the Brex­it ref­er­en­dum. Face­book claim this is not a data breach, but a mis­use of the old ver­sion of their plat­form api.

I’ve been won­der­ing what to write up about this since the sto­ry broke, trou­ble is there is always new devel­op­ments forthcoming.

To explain the core part of the sto­ry. In 2014 a researcher Alek­san­dr Kogan cre­at­ed one of those quiz apps, thi­sisy­our­dig­i­tal­life. The kind that used to annoy you on your time­line that your friends has tak­en. Due to the way Face­book worked back then, they where able to extract a lot of per­son­al infor­ma­tion about who was using it, and was able to do the same with that per­sons friends.

This infor­ma­tion, accord­ing to reports, was lat­er passed on the Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca who they used it to cre­ate psy­cho­graph­ic pro­files which was then used on behalf of their clients, par­tic­u­lar­ly in elec­tions, to tar­get peo­ple with very spe­cif­ic influ­enc­ing adver­tis­ing, so called dark ads.

All of this came to light due to sev­er­al whistle­blow­ers, and a year long inves­ti­ga­tion by New York Times, The Guardian, Chan­nel 4, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the work of Car­ole Cad­wal­ladr.

Theres a lot of ground to cov­er here, and so this is the light take as fur­ther posts may take a top­ic in depth.

  • There is Face­book as a data min­ing plat­form and how its api was and what has since changed?
  • Who these com­pa­nies that bought the data are, what they did, and the ques­tion of it their tech­niques even work?
  • How much influ­ence do social media plat­forms have and what needs to change?

Face­book is a per­son­al data min­ing plat­form, always has been. This goes back to the report­ed infa­mous chat log. Face­book and ser­vices like it exist to get you to put in as much per­son­al infor­ma­tion as pos­si­ble. We may think of them as social spaces, pub­lic spaces event. They are not how­ev­er, this is a walled gar­den and the cost of entry is your per­son­al infor­ma­tion. Aral Balkan describes it as sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism.

Before 2015, Face­book would offer almost every­thing it has to any third part devel­op­er. I was sur­prised a lot by what I could take when I was dab­bling with Face­book appli­ca­tions around 2010. By 2015 Face­book has locked it down quite a bit, unless your appli­ca­tion asked for extend­ed per­mis­sions. I remem­ber work­ing on a house shar­ing start up (Ruu­mi) when I was asked to build a fea­ture to help some­one who had signed up quick­ly inside the site invite friends to review them, and found that actu­al­ly Face­book would only send a friends list con­tain­ing oth­ers who had also signed into the site using Facebook.

Now since the researchers app was before the lock down hap­pened, they where able to take all this per­son­al data straight out of Face­book. It was only a terms of ser­vice lim­i­ta­tion to stop pass­ing that data around, it was all on a mat­ter of trust.

If the phy­co­log­i­cal and big data tar­get­ing tech­niques claimed to have been used work it would be pro­found and even the abil­i­ty to attempt this is very scary. That said, amongst my peers who are more focused on social media, there is a degree of scep­ti­cism on whether these tech­niques and tac­tics actu­al­ly work, and if they had any influ­ence. That the claims being made are the same as social adver­tis­ing agen­cies that this all works, when real­ly theres isn’t much evi­dence to real­ly show that it does. I would be inter­est­ed in see­ing any met­rics on this and how it was worked out if it con­vert­ed any votes. Its also worth not­ing that Mark Zucke­bergs took out print adver­tis­ing to reach a vast audi­ence to apol­o­gise on behalf of the com­pa­ny. Per­haps he did­n’t fan­cy boost­ing his Face­book post to reach a wider audience.

I saw the #delete­face­book move­ment, but most­ly I saw many friends say­ing they would not leave Face­book. That they val­ued the space and saw it as a way to con­nect, to pro­mote and assist the caus­es they cared about, and to build a com­mu­ni­ty. For my own use, I’m a user of Face­book, though its most­ly post­ing in from else­where. Mind you, this else­where is also Insta­gram, anoth­er Face­book owned prop­er­ty. I did try to briefly pro­mote (as I often try to) my pres­ence on Mastodon, just not seen any tak­ers. Face­book does pro­vide some­thing excep­tion­al­ly use­ful to a lot of peo­ple. How­ev­er giv­en how abstract the con­cept of tak­ing per­son­al data seemed, many of us took it with a pinch of salt, after all what could pos­si­bly be inter­est­ing about my life to adver­tis­ers. I have my sym­pa­thies with why peo­ple find it hard to leave, giv­en that ‘every­one is on Face­book’. Though for many of us, we have been alive longer than Face­book has exist­ed, and got along and formed social groups and pro­mot­ed caus­es and did good things fine.

I do think the issue raised with this, the min­ing of per­son­al data to the influ­ence elec­tions, and the oth­er issues (Russ­ian Gov­ern­ment bots) are impor­tant to look at and build defences against. I do wor­ry this means we loose sight of some of the deep divi­sions that have hap­pened in our soci­eties. Its impor­tant not to fall into the trap of just blam­ing the tech, its mis­use, and bad actors, and if it was­n’t for that then it would all be ok. The cam­paigns these tech­niques are said to have been used on where already marked as com­pet­i­tive, with a lot of anger from left behind peo­ple. I think rebuild­ing social and com­mu­ni­ty rela­tion­ships, per­haps in an offline first way and includ­ing with groups that vot­ed ‘the oth­er way’ (excl nazis obvi­ous­ly) is going to help us move for­ward than just fix­ing the tech alone.

Foot­note : Took me mul­ti­ple times to spell Ana­lyt­i­ca cor­rect­ly, and Apple spellcheck still insists it’s wrong.

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