Some See New regulations as Imminent
Unless you’re been completely offline and out of touch, by now you’ve heard about a pretty devastating data breach that Facebook insists on calling merely a misuse of its platform. Although the Cambridge Analytica story is still unravelling, as more and more of its details emerge it seems a complicated weave of academics and algorithms, politics and platforms, data and demons. Facebook may not be the devil in this story, but it is inextricably tainted by what happened. And the fallout will likely reverberate far into the future in the form of more robust scrutiny and harsher regulations of Facebook and other social media platforms.
How Did it All Start?
In 2014, a third party app called “thisisyourdigitallife” that was billed as a “research tool” legally accessed the Facebook API to collect user data. Users were paid a nominal amount of money to take detailed personality tests that included political information. So far, so good. Users downloaded the app, agreed to its terms, logged in through their Facebook accounts and willingly participated in the surveys that consisted of a couple of hundred questions. BUT, what they may not have understood was that thisisyourdigitallife wasn’t just interested in their answers to the psychological surveys. It also collected data from their Facebook accounts. And this is where it gets really good—or really bad. The app also tapped into the data of users’ friends. That amounted to the data hack of more than 87 million unsuspecting people.
Who Are the Players?
Aleksandr Kogan: At the center of the tapestry is an associate professor who developed and used the thisisyourdigitallife app for his so-called research. However, this is where a bit of he-said-they-said comes into play. The people at Facebook say Kogan violated its terms when he gathered data for purposes other than research and shared it with Cambridge Analytica. Eventually they banned him and Cambridge Analytica from the platform. Eventually being the key timeframe. According to Kogan, although he did indeed begin the project for research purposes, he later updated the app’s terms and conditions to expressly state that he had the right to sell and license the data collected. Moreover, Kogan says that “Facebook at no point raised any concerns at all about any of these changes.”
Wait, there’s more to Kogan’s profile. In addition to his ties to Cambridge Analytica, Kogan is an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University (yes, that’s in Russia) and has received grants from the Russian government to conduct research. If his ties to Russia seem suspect, Kogan denies any espionage connection. He recently sent an email to colleagues in which he stated: “If I am a Russian spy, I am the world’s dumbest spy.”
I am the world’s dumbest spy
But Kogan also founded a company called Global Science Research, which provided Facebook data to SCL Elections, the parent company to Cambridge Analytica. (You don’t need to be a sleuth to imagine where all this is headed.)
Alexander Nix: CEO of SCL Elections, Nix was also CEO of Cambridge Analytica UK (no surprise, he has since been ousted). In a recent undercover interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News, Nix admitted to participating in several unethical means to interfere with elections across the globe.
Steve Bannon: Former Vice President of Cambridge Analytica, LLC, Bannon was also CEO of the Trump presidential bid and White House Chief Strategist for the first seven months of Trump’s term.
Christopher Wylie: A former contractor-turned-whistleblower with Cambridge Analytica, Wylie was asked on March 19th to appear before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. He exposed all this and seems a very willing and cooperative witness. Even Kogan says he’ll testify if asked.
Why Should You Care?
Regardless of your political leanings, the intense scrutiny of Cambridge Analytica is more than just a headache to Facebook and how it does business. One of the reasons the social media behemoth has grown so massively is its ability to give marketers a trove of data to pinpoint audiences with laser focus. It examines multiple variables and uses an ever-evolving algorithm to practically predict the future. Today, you can create lookalike audiences on Facebook that are a near mirror match to your existing students. What better way to determine who your best future students will be than by looking at the success stories you currently have?
That’s today. But if the cyber-espionage theatre continues its negative trajectory, Facebook is likely to find it and all its social media brethren caught in some legislative crosshairs. When faced with backlash about fake accounts in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, Facebook put in new regulations to limit nefarious access to its platform. While that was perceived as a prudent gesture of goodwill by some, to have such a large scale breach occur so soon (during) after a last misstep, likely has even Facebook shareholders shaking their heads (have you checked out its stock price?). And the legislators who were yesterday reluctant to thwart the economic powerhouses may finally decide that American privacy rights cannot be left to virtually unregulated platforms with tons of data, but a dearth of defenses. And once the regulators pull a single thread of this tightly knitted fabric of internet and algorithm, the whole tapestry could unravel.
Are you as fascinated by all this as we are? Let us know. But if you find it all a bit overwhelming, we’ve got your back. Contact ESM Digital today and let’s talk tech!