Over the past week, the biggest news story in the world of tech has been the expose by whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, of Facebook and the data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, allegedly using people’s personal data in a not so savoury way. A lot of names, statistics and opinions have been cast around and most people are still fairly confused about who is to blame. Facebook has been on the receiving end of most of the censure with the hashtag #deletefacebook trending on Twitter and the platform reportedly depreciating in value by around $60 million and counting, as a result of the reports. But what really is going on and how should we all be reacting to the situation?
What we know so far
The basic facts of the ‘scandal’ are that around 50 million personal Facebook profiles were scraped for their data by Cambridge Analytica, a British data analytics firm which had previously received investments from Robert Mercer (a well known Republican donor) and Steve Bannon (Donald Trump’s previous campaign advisor). The data that was collected may or may not have been misused in order to influence some big political events of the past two years, namely the US presidential election and the UK Referendum.
The type of data that Cambridge Analytica was harvesting is a cause for concern; collecting general demographical data, emails, phone numbers and the like is not an unfamiliar practice in digital marketing. But, Cambridge Analytica also looked at pages that people had liked, comments and comment likes, in other words, their interactional data, in order to build ‘psychographic profiles’ as well as similar data from these people’s Facebook friends. This method of data scraping was initially developed for academic purposes by the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University. These profiles, supposedly helped Cambridge Analytica to create modified posts based on this information that could have influenced users’ decisions making processes in regards to purchases and more sinisterly, political voting. The fact that Cambridge Analytica was hired by Trump’s campaign officials in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election explains why people are so upset about the whole ordeal.
Who’s to blame?
Much of the confusion lies in what regulations were breached and who is primarily at fault in all of this. What most people are outraged by is the fact that there was no hacking, breaching or any sort of illegal activity occurring in order to obtain this data, yet somehow so much of it was obtained. So what went on? Enter Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge and his personality-testing app, ‘thisisyourdigitallife’. The app ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ was designed to extract data in a similar way to the method developed by the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University. Cambridge Analytica hired Kogan and his app to obtain vast quantities of personal data in 2014. Crucially, the app requested access to users’ data and consent was gained each time somebody used it, so on the surface, nothing apparently untoward was going on. But here’s something else; Kogan, his app and Cambridge Analytica continued to collect data under the pretence that it was for academic research meaning that Facebook never questioned it, thus allowing it to go on for a substantial period of time.
That Facebook perhaps didn’t do anything overtly wrong is not the point; many people are jaded by the fact that Facebook apparently wasn’t doing anything at all to protect their personal data and privacy and Zuckerburg’s initial silence about the accusations only seemed to reaffirm people’s frustration.
The social media platform has now banned Cambridge Analytica, Dr Kogan and Christopher Wylie from using it whilst the ICO’s investigation continues, although the damage is already done.
The marketer’s perspective
A lot of marketing and advertising professionals who regularly use Facebook to run ads might be saying, “so what?” to the claims. Pretty much all personal data that is shared on social media platforms is (legally or illegally) collected and monetised by third-party organisations to some degree. Platforms like Facebook simply wouldn’t work without users disclosing their personal data. Though social media was not initially designed to be an advertising space, this is more or less the business model of Facebook’s advertising system. But collecting data for ad targeting purposes and the (unethical) manipulation of it are two separate things.
A big takeaway from this story is that the majority of people are largely unaware of what happens with their personal information once they submit it to social media sites. Furthermore, most people have a very little grasp on the actual value of their personal data to marketing professionals. Perhaps one positive outcome is that the regular Facebook user will become much more conscious of the kinds of information they are giving away and much more informed about how that data is used. It also opens up a wider discussion about data use in general and how the technology with which organisations like Cambridge Analytica are able to collate and track our data is becoming more sophisticated and commonplace. With the GDPR coming into effect in the UK this May, the US will likely be expected to follow suit and revise their digital privacy regulations as a direct result of this.
What will be the fallout of Cambridge Analytica’s misconduct for digital marketers remains to be seen but it is fairly evident that we will be experiencing an increasingly regulated digital space over the years to come.