50 Million Users’ Data Mined From Facebook, Used For Profiling and Political Targeting
Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to the Trump campaign, used illicitly obtained personal information from Facebook to target users with political ads, according to a report from The Guardian.
According to the article, Cambridge Analytica took advantage of Facebook’s broad user base to deploy an app that harvested users’ personal information without authorization. The company then used this information to build personality profiles on users and serve them targeted political ads meant to take advantage of their “…inner demons.”:
Christopher Wylie, who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to obtain the data, told the Observer: “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 that the entire company was built on.”
Though Facebook allows apps to access extensive user information for functionality purposes, abusing such access to personal data for other reasons is strictly against their terms of service. Facebook announced that it is suspending Cambridge Analytica from its site for this violation.
In further reporting, the Guardian described how the fantastically complex the app’s algorithm was:
The algorithm at the heart of the Facebook data breach sounds almost too dystopian to be real. It trawls through the most apparently trivial, throwaway postings –the “likes” users dole out as they browse the site – to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma.
The app is more complex than just collecting information on the specific pages and organizations users “like”. Instead, it uses complicated association networks to accurately predict traits about users based on their interactions with seemingly unrelated things. That is to say, by examining all your likes and comparing them to everyone elses’, the algorithm can accurately determine your traits even if you have not explicitly posted or “liked” anything that would give them away – it determines them based on the foods you like, the brands you follow and other seemingly unrelated online interactions.
The depth of this type of data manipulation raises a host of new issues for digital consumers, who are already barraged by a wealth of big data constantly spying on them. A recent Wall Street Journal report (pay-walled) described how a woman discovered that third-party data collection linked her Facebook account, her physical location and her drug store loyalty card to serve her ads. All this information on all of us is being collected and tabulated, probably in multiple places. This most recent breach and abuse of Facebook’s user information highlights that this collection of information may be far more revealing than we ever even expected, as researchers discover they can glean the most intimate details about us from seemingly trivial actions, and use that to influence and manipulate our ideas and actions.