Cambridge Analytica: meddling with elections and what this means for internet users

February 7, 2020

 

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company [Cambridge Analytica] was built on.”

 

Cambridge Analytica and US elections

I can say with absolute certainty that we have all heard the name Cambridge Analytica at least once or twice in the past year. After all, when Mark Zuckerberg testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee about Cambridge Analytica a little more than a year ago, a wide array of memes making fun of his alien-like disposition popped up on the internet. Before we delve any deeper, though, what is Cambridge Analytica’s history and how did this organisation come to be so disgraced?

 

Cambridge Analytica (CA) was a British political consulting firm founded in 2013 by its CEO Alexander Nix. Its goal was to find innovative strategies to help ensure that whoever had hired them would win their respective election. The company did so by harvesting data from a variety of sources, such as social media profiles, credit card statements, liked posts and web users' browser history. 

 

How did Cambridge Analytica collect Facebook users’ data? It did so by using a Facebook app developed by a data scientist at Cambridge University titled “This Is Your Digital Life”. CA would then sent out informed consent forms to hundreds of thousands of Facebook users for their data. In the process, though, the company also acquired the personal information of all the Facebook users who were friends with the informed parties. In total, CA acquired the personal information of 87 million users, according to Facebook itself.

 

During the 2016 US election season, CA harvested data from millions of Facebook users in an attempt to personalise the ads that each voter was seeing on their screen. They believed that by catering ads to each voter, they would be more successful in making voters elect whoever was hiring the company in that specific election. 

 

However successful CA’s strategy was, it undoubtedly lacked in ethics. An individual should be able to form their own political opinions without being influenced by third parties whose goal is to get a specific candidate elected. Political ads created with the help of CA were different than other political ads because CA employed strategies that would most likely sway a voter’s opinions, without necessarily providing truthful statements.

 

Our data rights

Can you see what the issue is in that? Facebook knowingly allowed a third party to harvest your data without even asking you for your permission. In this age especially, it is crucial that people recognise how due to all the technology around us, data rights should also be human rights. This access to users’ data is one of the reasons why tech companies such as Google or Facebook are so wealthy. Oil isn’t the world’s most valuable resource anymore, but data is. These companies make profit from using their user