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Cambridge Analytica

Here's why there's uproar again about Facebook and the data firm used by Trump's 2016 campaign

A former employee of Cambridge Analytica has said the firm is “a full-service propaganda machine”.

Technology Experts Gather At The Annual Web Summit Conference Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica. Horacio Villalobos - Corbis Horacio Villalobos - Corbis

A SCANDAL HAS been brewing over the past few days involving social media giant Facebook, data-driven political campaign firm Cambridge Analytica which was part of Trump’s 2016 election campaign push.

It’s a complex story, but one that’s becoming more and more important, mostly because it concerns people’s Facebook data. It’s because of Cambridge Analytica, for example, that Facebook shares tumbled by 5% in early trading today.

It’s also raised a debate about how far voters can/should be influenced, as Cambridge Analytica is a company that offers its services to those who want to “change audience behaviour” in the context of elections, referendums, and other important political events.

What’s kicked all this off?

On Saturday, the Observer published an interview with Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who claims to have built the “psychological warfare tool” used in Trump’s election win. Among the information divulged by Wylie, was that 50 million Facebook profiles had been harvested through the app, thisisyourdigitallife, which offered a personality prediction test, describing itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists.”

Some 270,000 people downloaded the app, allowing Kogan to access information such as the city listed on their profile, or content they had “liked”.

“However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong,” the Observer reported.

Wylie said that the information taken included status updates, comments, likes and sometimes even people’s private messages.

“It is a full-service propaganda machine,” he said.

The Guardian / YouTube

According to the New York Times and Britain’s Observer, the company took information  to help them design software to predict and influence voters’ choices at the ballot box.

Facebook responded by suspending the account of Cambridge Analytica.

Also suspended were the accounts of its parent organisation, Strategic Communication Laboratories, as well as those of University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan and Wylie.

The incident is being called the tech giant’s biggest-ever data breach.

The EU said the data breach was “horrifying” and Europe must do everything to protect its own citizens.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said she would seek clarification from Facebook about the reports in the Observer and the New York Times when she visits the US this week.

Who has worked with CA?

The company has worked on political campaigns in countries including Kenya, Colombia, and India, according to the Guardian.

The company’s CEO Alexander Nix has denied that his firm worked for campaigners for the Brexit leave vote, although this has been hotly disputed by the co-founder of Leave.EU, Arron Banks.

Thomas Borwick, who used to work for CA, set up his own company Kanto, which was hired by Irish anti-abortion group according to the Times (Ireland edition). Kanto was also linked to the Brexit Leave campaign. / YouTube

What has CA said?

In a statement on Twitter, CA reacted to the story from the Observer and the New York Times:

Reality Check: Cambridge Analytica uses client and commercially and publicly available data; we don’t use or hold any Facebook data.
 When we learned GSR sold us Facebook data that it shouldn’t have​ done​, we deleted it all – system wide audit to verify.

GSR is short for Global Science Research, whose co-founder Joseph Chancellor is working for Facebook as an in-house psychologist. More on them from the Guardian here.

CA did not use any Facebook data for the 2016 Trump campaign.

“Mr. Wylie is a former contractor for, not a founder of CA. He is the subject of restraining undertakings to prevent misuse of the company’s intellectual property.”

Advertising is not coercive; people are smarter than that.

It added that Obama’s 2008 campaign was “famously” data-driven, pioneered microtargeting in 2012, “talking to people specifically based on the issues they care about”.

This isn’t a spy movie. We’re a data analytics company doing research & analysis on commercial, public and data sets for clients

“CA works for brands and political parties from across the political mainstream in democratic elections.”

- with reporting from AFP

Read: Facebook accused of misleading British parliament over data leak risk

Read: Mark Zuckerberg’s personal New Year’s resolution is to ‘fix’ Facebook

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