First, There was no hack.
The data collected was scraped from #Facebook user profiles, after users granted permission for a third party app to access their data. You know those little confirmation windows that pop up when someone wants to play Candy Crush or use Facebook to log in, rather than make a new password, for a random site? Yeah those.
A Cambridge academic called Aleksandr Kogan — NOT Cambridge Analytica and NOT the whistleblower Christopher Wylie — made a ‘Test Your Personality’ app, helped to promote it by paying people $2–4 to install it on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing site, and used the permissions granted to harvest profile data. 270,000 users installed the app, so you might expect that 270,000 profiles were collected but the app actually collected data from 50 million profiles.
Yes. You see back in the heady days of 2014, Facebook had a feature called ‘friends permission’ that allowed developers to access the profiles of not only the person who installed their app but all their friends too. The only way to prevent this from happening was to have toggled a privacy setting, which few Facebook users even knew existed (here is a blog from 2012 explaining how to do so). The friends permission feature is how Kogan multiplied 270,000 permissions into 50 million profiles worth of data.
The real story then is not that Kogan, Wylie, and Cambridge Analytica developed some incredibly high tech ‘hack’ of Facebook. It is that, aside from Kogan’s data selling, they used methods that were common place and permitted by Facebook prior to 2015. Cambridge Analytica has since the story broke been outed as a rather obnoxious, unethical company- at least in how it promotes itself to potential clients. But the majority of what is being reported in the media about its manipulative power is just an uncritical regurgitation of Cambridge Analytica (and Chris Wylie’s) self-promotional claims. The problem is that there is little evidence that the company can do what it claims and plenty of evidence that it is not as effective as it likes to pretend; see the fact that Ted Cruz is not currently president.
No one is totally immune to marketing or political messaging but *there is little evidence that Cambridge Analytica is better than other similar PR or political canvassing companies at targeting voters. Political targeting and disinformation campaigns, including those promoted by Russia, certainly had an impact on recent elections but were they the critical factor? Did they have a bigger impact than Comey announcing he was ‘reopening’ the Hillary email investigation the week before the US election? Or Brexiteers claiming that £250 million was being stolen from the NHS by the EU every week? Colour me skeptical.
To be crystal clear, I’m not arguing that Cambridge Analytica and Kogan were innocent. At the very least, it is clear they were doing things that were contrary to Facebook’s data sharing policies. And similarly Facebook seems to have been altogether too cavalier with permitting developers to access its users’ private data.
What I am arguing is that #Cambridge_Analytica are not the puppet masters they are being widely portrayed as. If anything they are much more akin to Donald Trump; making widely exaggerated claims about their abilities and getting lots of #attention as a result.