Tag Archives: phsychometrics

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and your digital data

The recent Facebook/CA fiasco should be known to most people by now but here is a brief rundown in case you’re unaware.

Aleksander Kogan, a Russian-American researcher, worked as a lecturer at Cambridge University, which has a Psychometrics Centre. The Centre advises to be able to use data from Facebook (including “likes”) to ascertain people’s personality traits. Cambridge Analytica and one of its founders, Christopher Wylie, attempted to work with the Centre for purposes of vote profiling. It refused, but Kogan accepted the offer in a private/CA capacity.

Kogan did not advise his relationship with CA when asking Facebook (which allows user data to be used for ‘research purposes’) for permission to use the data.  He created an app called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ which provided a personality prediction.

If this sounds familiar, then yes, many have probably filled in similar ‘tests’ which are available as apps on the Facebook (and other) platform. What most people don’t however know is that these apps are far more insidious than the playful front that they portray. The data collected by these apps can be used for any number of nefarious uses, and as in case, are being used in ways that break the user privacy agreement.

Kogan ended up providing private user data on up to 50 million users to CA, not for academic research but for political profiling purposes. This included not only users that had installed the app, but friends of those users as well. CA then used this data in commercial cases by working with various political parties and people (including Ted Crux and Trump campaigns). The product was called phsychographics.

Anyone who has read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series may see parallels here with the character Hari Seldon’s phsychohistory which is an algorithmic science that allows him to predict the future in probabilistic terms. This is fairly hard-core Science Fiction …

To see this kind of future-looking large scale profiling occurring in 2015/6 is quite shocking.

Facebook was aware of this information sharing as early as 2015 and had asked Kogan and CA to remove the data. But they never took it further to confirm that this had indeed been done.

This is pretty embarrassing for Facebook and its almost 10% stock drop this week confirms this. The larger concern for Facebook is that the company signed a deal with the US Federal Trade Commission in 2011 that was specifically focused on enforcing user privacy settings. So this saga may be a contravention of that agreement …  and Facebook have more troubles ahead seeing as both US and EU authorities are looking into the matter. Facebook execs have already been before the UK Parliament and are accused now of lying about the facts in this case.

Arstechnica’s take on the story

Christopher Wylie, the brains behind the technology in use, had previously left CA once realising what they were doing, and became the whistleblower that has lead to the furor over the last few weeks.

The Guardian’s article on Christopher Wylie

The NYTimes article

While some will say that they’re not worried about the data that is collected about them, this scenario shows that the issue is much bigger than individuals. Profiling of large groups of people based in individual user data is now a thing.

In the case of Facebook specifically, one can:

This story should be enough for most to rethink their online presence and activity. It’s not necessarily a matter of removing yourself from the Internet but rather being very circumspect about the information your offer up about yourself. Because your information is being bought, sold and used as a weapon against you.