When news broke that a firm was able to illegally harvest, analyse and use our own data against us, we were horrified. We couldn’t believe that a scheme like this could run for so long undetected. It wasn’t just terrifying but infuriating. The bodies to which we had entrusted power i.e Big Tech had failed us. It was becoming increasingly apparent that these tech gods couldn’t handle such a responsibility. This was the tipping point. People finally had enough. The whole Cambridge Analytica data scandal pointed to a larger issue – corporate accountability.
How it went down
2014:Facebook survey is released to the public
Alexsandr Kogan developed an app that would collect data based on the results to the survey titled – “This is your digital life”. This survey received over hundreds of thousands of responses.
As a Data scientist and psychology professor from Cambridge University, he was able to devise the right question which could work out a lot about the profile of the user. In addition to this, the app exploited a flaw in Facebook’s API which would collect the users’ actions (likes, interactions, interests and dislikes) as well as that of their entire friend circle. Through this, even though the survey was attempted by only a few hundred thousand individuals, he was able to mine the profiles of around 90 million profiles.
He later sold this to Cambridge Analytica who then filtered and micro-targeted groups with similar psychographic profiles (personality, values, interests etc) .
Jan 2015: Cambridge Analytica is incorporated
At that time, the company had only one employee: Alexander Nix (who was also CEO). Cambridge Analytica (CA) sold itself as a political consultancy firm which was based on academically-approved data analysing methods.
Dec 2015: First report of misuse
The Guardian reporter claimed that Ted Cruz (US Senator) used Cambridge Analytica to get elected. The problem with this was that the firm was harvesting personal information without the consent of users. Facebook declined to comment but opened investigations on the issue.
2015: Work done for Leave.EU campaign
It was later revealed that CA worked for the Leave side of the 2016 referendum vote that led to Brexit. The company preyed on user data to convert swing voters to leave. While the extent of their impact isn’t exactly ascertainable, it is likely that without CA, the Leave side wouldn’t have succeeded (as it edged out with just 51.9% of the votes).
2016: Donald Trump presidential campaign
Based on their Facebook activity, US voters were targeted with specific ads which intended to influence how they voted (i.e for Trump). Basically what Cambridge Analytica did was cater specific posts to people with certain psychographic profiles as it was likely that they would positively react to it. These ads essentially preyed on personality traits that we wouldn’t even consciously known about our own loved ones. By tailoring ads to such a personable degree, Cambridge Analytica got closer to millions and reached a level of personal connection that even door-to-door campaigns couldn’t emulate.
This eventually led to Republicans winning swing states by minute margins and ultimately led to Trump becoming president despite losing the popular vote (getting less total votes).
Dec 2016-Mar 2017: More reports surface of data misuse
Many different news publications around the world like Das Magazin (Switzerland), The Intercept (Brazil) and The Guardian (UK) reported different cases where CA misused user data to influence elections. These reports indicated that CA was active in many regions and tampering with many democratic elections simultaneously.
Early 2018: Proposal to influence Indian elections
According to whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica presented a plan on how Congress (INC) could use CA’s data to steer multiple state elections (Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh) in 2018 and even the general elections in 2019. Whether or not they used CA’s help, the INC couldn’t garner enough votes to win the general election but won those three state elections (two of which they lost due to weak coalition governments whose alliances broke).
Whether Cambridge Analytica was explicitly involved isn’t clear nonetheless the Indian government demanded that Facebook explain how such a data breach could occur.
Mar 17, 2018: Whistleblower emerges
Carole Cadwalladr (reporter at Guardian and Observer) who came out with initial report got whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, to come out and reveal first-hand the shady activities of CA.
In a coordinated effort, three different news publications put out this story which reached millions and caused outrage. This spouted the #deleteFacebook campaign after which Facebook finally had to comment.
Late Mar 2018: Outrage follows
Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, publicly apologized for the data lapse and vowed to do better. In the days that followed about $134B was erased from Facebook’s market capitalization and the parliaments of many nations demanded that Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives appear for questioning.
Mar 19, 2018: Channel 4 News sting operation
An undercover reporter from Channel 4 News recorded a private conversation with Alexander Nix where he boasted the power of Cambridge Analytica. With his guard down, Nix revealed how he would allure political opponents, the company’s involvement in bribery and entrapment (of opponents) and in general company practices.
After release, Cambridge Analytica put out a statement claiming that the video footage was “edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent” Nix.
April 10, 2018: Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony
Appearing under Congress, Facebook CEO repeatedly apologized as he was grilled on the undetectable way people could leverage his platform to influence political races. Later Facebook was fined $5B for this data breach.
May 2, 2018: Termination
The company announced that they would be closing down and had already begun insolvency proceedings.
May 16, 2018: Christopher Wylie’s testimony
He too appeared under Congress to respond to wide range of questions. His testimony covered the much-discussed Russian involvement, his thoughts of Facebook’s response and why he decided to out Cambridge Analytica.
As the firm’s early Director of Research, Wylie could provide technical insight to how this political influencing was happening. Later he testified to British authorities as well.
June 6, 2018: Alexander Nix’s testimony
The company’s CEO was summoned before British lawmakers after failing to answer their preliminary questions satisfactorily. He evaded most questions regarding Russian interference and attempted to make himself the victim in the situation. Many lawmakers took offense to this, and more so to his rudeness and aggression when responding.
He also took the testimony as an opportunity to go after Christopher Wylie stating that Wylie was a jealous ex-employee.
2018: Emerdata Limited and Data Propria
Despite Cambridge Analytica being disbanded and Alexander Nix being reprimanded on a global forum, many employees of the firm have been able to bounce back. Scarily enough, in almost identical situations.
Alexander Nix was appointed Director (later removed) to a subsidiary firm to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL called Emerdata Limited.
Cambridge Analytica’s head of product (Matt Oczkowski) and chief data scientist (David Wilkinson) and two other key employees jumped ship and created Data Propria. This company that is rumoured to be working on Donald Trump’s 2020 Presidential campaign.
The story came at a time when the public’s trust for Facebook was at an all-time low. Simultaneously, the world was (and still is) shifting towards authoritarianism. Across the world many democracies were slipping to authoritarian rule. To many this was extremely distressing and inexplicable. Learning about Cambridge Analytica’s impact provided a gut-wrenching explanation to such a phenomenon.
For Cambridge Analytica to exploit a simple feature from Facebook and turn it into such a powerful tool was terrifying to comprehend but arguably more so was Facebook’s inaction. Knowing about the data that Cambridge Analytica had, they didn’t do nearly enough to prevent its misuse. To exploit a loophole is one thing, but to knowingly let it continue is, at best, careless; especially when your business model rides on your reputation.
The reason this scandal gained traction was because it highlighted two key issues. One was that such an anti-democratic tool could be created and another that tech companies weren’t willing to take responsibility over their own products.
The second issue is one that has been persistent. Even more so in the recent years. It is time countries hold corporations accountable to their actions and corporations begin to proactive put out the fires they unknowingly create. This might not seem like a fair ask but if these companies continue to profit off of ‘social good’ it is time that they act towards it.
The first issue highlights how far technologies have developed and sadly that laws haven’t been able to keep up. Threats to democracy have always persisted but the power of technology is far-reaching and frightening. While violence and fears over the economy have been blunt instruments used to create panic, technology is the silent tool that can thwart democracies. Today, even if authoritarian regimes pop up they will be smart enough to hide it under the guise of elections. Since elections confer some form of legitimacy many countries will continue to hold elections but if the fairness of these processes are tampered with, we will begin to live in a world of pseudo-democracies which mask the authoritarian regimes that will take over.
There isn’t still a clear way forward to fight this but as of now, vigilance is our best weapon.