Saturday, March 17, 2018

Carole Cadwalladr & Emma Graham-Harrison - 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach // How Facebook’s destructive ethos imperils democracy

Whistleblower describes how firm linked to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon compiled user data to target American voters 

The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in the tech giant’s biggest ever data breach, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

How Facebook’s destructive ethos imperils democracy
The revelations in our lead story today are shocking not just because they reveal the extent to which Facebook’s advertising system was exploited for political purposes in the 2016 election, but also because they demonstrate the company’s inability to comprehend the responsibilities that accompany its newfound power. The revelations show that a data analytics firm was able to harvest the Facebook profiles of about a third of all US Facebook users, which were then used to construct psychological models of those individuals for campaign purposes. This was no run-of-the-mill cybercrime heist that merely stole credit card details. The information that Facebook holds on its users (at least 98 data points per user) is deeply revealing – including of their tastes, preferences, habits, sexuality, politics, hopes and fears. Academic research has shown that even knowledge of a few “Likes” can reveal an astonishing amount about an individual Facebook user. For political campaigners, this is the purest gold dust, because it enables messages to be precisely calibrated, and for this to be done at a scale that was unimaginable in the pre-internet era.

No one can pretend Facebook is just harmless fun any more

Christopher Wylie, who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to obtain the data, told the Observer: “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 that the entire company was built on.” Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.

The New York Times is reporting that copies of the data harvested for Cambridge Analytica could still be found online; its reporting team had viewed some of the raw data. The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising. The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election... read more: