Earlier this week, news broke that UK-based data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data of tens of millions of people and used such profiles to create a specialised software that could determine the voting behaviour of citizens.
While subsequent revelations have confirmed the fact and even Facebook has accepted that the data harvesting did take place, what we know now is that in the United States alone, Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data of 50 million voters ahead of the US presidential election in 2016.
50 million Facebook profiles harvested
According to The Observer, Aleksandr Kogan, an academic at the Cambridge University, created a specialised app called thisisyourdigitallife. Subsequently, thanks to an agreement between Cambridge Analytica and his company Global Science Research (GSR), he used the app to collect Facebook data of hundreds of thousands of Facebook users who had agreed to take personality tests and to have their data collected for academic use.
Not only did Kogan’s app harvest Facebook data of those who participated in the tests, but also harvested profiles of their Facebook friends, thereby extending its reach to millions of users. After spending nearly $1 million on collecting the data, Kogan was able to put together Facebook profiles of over 50 million people in the United States.
Harvested Facebook profiles were then matched with electoral rolls and then used to create a specialised software that could determine voting behaviour and personality traits of citizens. The contract between Cambride Analytica and GSR aimed to create a ‘gold standard’ of understanding personality from Facebook profile information.
Zuckerberg admits Facebook made mistakes, promises to protect user data
In a post on Facebook that he published less than an hour ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally broke his silence on Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting affair.
“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it,” he said.
Explaining the timeline of the events that took place since 2014, Zuckerberg said that in that year, Facebook decided to dramatically limit the data apps could access, and this move stopped apps from collecting data belonging to a person’s friends unless their friends had also authorized the app.
Once Facebook came to know from journalists at The Guardian that Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica without obtaining express consent from Facebook users, Facebook banned both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica from using its services.
“This was a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. But it was also a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it. We need to fix that,” he added.
In order to win back the trust of Facebook users, Zuckerberg said that Facebook will restrict developers’ data access even further to prevent other kinds of abuse. These steps will include removing developers’ access to a user’s data if the user hasn’t used an app in three months, restricting the data that a user has to provide to an app during the sign-up process to only name, email address, and a profile photo, and requiring developers to not only get approval but also sign a contract in order to ask anyone for access to their posts or other private data.
In April, Facebook will also introduce a tool at the top of News Feed which will let users view the apps they’ve used and revoke such apps’ permissions to their data.
“While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today, that doesn’t change what happened in the past. We will learn from this experience to secure our platform further and make our community safer for everyone going forward,” he added.