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Saturday, April 13, 2024

How Donald Trump stole Facebook data to win his election

News Analysis |

Facebook has been in the mud before; but the Cambridge Analytica scandal seems to be having a greater toll on the global network. Facebook is under international fire for the largest security breach since its creation and of course; it had something to do with Donald Trump.

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Cambridge Analytica is a privately held company that combines data mining and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. The company had played a role in Donald Trump’s election campaign.  On 16th March, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica blew the whistle on the company and revealed that they had breached Facebook’s data servers to access information from 50 million user accounts without permission from Facebook.

The outlook of it all was terrible. Facebook shares plunged on Monday as the social media giant was pounded by criticism at home and abroad over revelations that a firm working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign harvested and misused data on 50 million members. Facebook shares skidded 6.8 percent by the close of the Nasdaq on concerns about pressure for new regulations that could hurt its business model. Shares slipped another percent or so to $170 in after-market trades.

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Calls for investigations came on both sides of the Atlantic after Facebook responded to explosive reports of misuse of its data by suspending the account of Cambridge Analytica, a British firm hired by Trump’s 2016 campaign.

How it happened

In 2014 a quiz on Facebook invited users to find out their personality type. It was developed by University of Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan (the university has no connections with Cambridge Analytica). The quiz was designed to harvest not only the user data of the person taking part in the quiz, but also the data of their friends, as the trend goes with apps, games and questionnaires. Christopher Wylie, who worked with Cambridge Analytica, alleges that because 270,000 people took the quiz, the data of some 50 million users, mainly in the US, was harvested without their explicit consent via their friend networks. Mr Wylie claims the data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, which then used it to psychologically profile people and deliver pro-Trump material to them.

Cambridge Analytica denies any of it was used as part of the services it provided to the Trump campaign.

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How Facebook reacted to the whole affair

 Facebook did two things to protect itself: it sent letters to the media firms laying out its legal case for why this data leak didn’t constitute a “breach.” And then it scooped the reports using their information, with a Friday blog post on why it was suspending the ad firm, Cambridge Analytica, from its site. It is safe to comment that both moves backfired.

Yesterday Facebook threatened to sue us. Today we publish this.

-Carole Cadwalladr

On Friday, Facebook said it “received reports” that Cambridge Analytica hadn’t deleted the user data, and that it needed to suspend the firm. The statement gave the impression that Facebook had looked into the matter. In fact, the company’s decisions were stemming from information in the news reports set to publish the next day, and it had not independently verified those reports, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. By trying to look proactive, Facebook ended up adding weight to the news.

On Saturday, any good will the company earned by talking about the problem first was quickly undone when reporters revealed Facebook’s behind-the-scenes legal maneuvering. “Yesterday Facebook threatened to sue us. Today we publish this,” Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer reporter, wrote as she linked her story to Twitter, in a post shared almost 15,000 times. The Guardian said it had nothing to add to her statement. The Times confirmed that it too received a letter, but said it didn’t consider the correspondence a legal threat.

How the government is reacting to it:

Following the forewarning of former president Barack Obama, the congress has decided to have a hands on approach for the first time. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican John Kennedy called for Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg to appear before Congress, along with Google and Twitter’s CEOs.The lawmakers said the companies “have amassed unprecedented amounts of personal data” and that the lack of oversight “raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights”.

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Senator Ron Wyden asked Facebook to provide more information on what he called a “troubling” misuse of private data that could have been used to sway voters.

Wyden said he wants to know how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook tools “to weaponize detailed psychological profiles against tens of millions of Americans”.