QU professors explain the implications of Cambridge Analytica incident

By Thamar Bailey

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder and CEO, will testify next week before the United States Senate following allegations of misconduct with Facebook user data.

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The allegations stem from ongoing speculations involving Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher from the University of Cambridge, who was willingly given access to Facebook data via a personality app he created. Ultimately, Kogan harvested data from over a million Facebook users and then gave it to Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, which was said to have used it to influence both Brexit and the 2016 United States presidential election.

Quinnipiac University assistant professor of software engineering, Stefan Christov, said that it remains unclear if Cambridge Analytica had permission to use the data and instead that it’s likely Kogan wasn’t permitted to release the data to a private company. However, Christov noted that this didn’t stop Cambridge Analytica from using it.

Graphic by Thamar Bailey

Graphic by Thamar Bailey

“Once they had the data they could run all types of algorithms to do all kinds of analysis to figure out the characteristics of a user based on what’s in their data,” Christov said. “I read that [Cambridge Analytica] had a bunch of categories and then they tried to categorise the users. And then if you have a user in this kind of category then if you show them this kind of ad you could potentially influence their political activity.”

Lisa Burns, Quinnipiac chair and associate professor of media studies, said this method is called targeted advertising. The practice is meant to target those who are most likely to support the cause or candidate, or those who are undecided but “have the potential to sway,” according to Burns.

Burns explained the method is common, though notes social media ads are a bit different.

“Radio stations and newspapers have always sold ads based on audience demographics and psychographics,” Burns said. “One of the differences is that social media sites like Facebook have so much more data on their users, especially when it comes to their personal likes and dislikes. This allows companies or campaigns to target audiences even more directly.”

It’s this element of user data combined with privacy that may create legal consequences. According to Quinnipiac assistant media studies professor Kearston Wesner, the potential legal backlash is “complicated and massive.”  

Since the story broke, various lawsuits have been filed by both users and investors ranging from privacy violations, unfair competition to securities fraud, Wesner said. Some estimate Facebook’s stock market value has decreased by $50 billion, according to Wesner.

Furthermore, in 2011 Facebook entered an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission in which Facebook said they would safeguard the privacy of its users. According to Wesner, the agreement came after the FTC filed a complaint against Facebook claiming that the company failed to disclose to users that third parties had access to their private information.

Now the FTC is suggesting that Facebook breached its 2011 agreement after the incident with  Cambridge Analytica. Wesner said that at one point Cambridge Analytica told Facebook it destroyed the user data obtained from Kogan. So the FTC is also questioning whether Facebook did a sufficient job in assuring the data was actually deleted, because it turns out it wasn’t, said Wesner.

In the wake of these questions and suggested violations, Zuckerberg agreed to testify in front of various senate committees.

“This will give Congress the opportunity to ask questions about exactly how Facebook was dealing with people’s private information,” Wesner said. “Facebook has been accused of being vague on this front for ages.”

Zuckerberg will go before Congress in a joint hearing on April 10.