eXtensions - Wednesday 28 March 2018


eXtensions - The Wednesday File (50): Facebook and Cambridge Analytica - The Widening Gyre

By Graham K. Rogers


While there were obviously more to the initial revelations from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a week since some of the dirty tricks were made public, there have been almost daily gasps as more is revealed. Also revealed were new devices and education software at yesterday's Apple event in Chicago

Apple Education Event

While I was asleep, Apple held an education-flavoured event in Chicago and a number of announcements, updates and product releases were announced:
  • I see updates to Keynote, Numbers and Pages on iOS and macOS, with an update for Garageband on iOS, which apparently works with face-recognition on the iPhone X. Clips was also updated.

  • A new basic iPad with the A10 chip which will work with the Apple Pencil and a new Logitech pencil type: the Crayon. This links to an iPad by pressing an orange button, so teachers don't have to worry about Bluetooth pairing. The iPads are already shown here, starting at 11,500 baht for the 32 GB version, up to 19,900 baht for WiFI +cellular for the 128GB iPad (14,900 for WiFi only). Although these are ready to order in the USA, they are shown as currently unavailable here (perhaps due to the need for government authorisation for devices that transmit).

  • Disk space for Education is going up from 5GB to 200GB. No indication if that is to be available here, but that is likely for those using the specific programs outlined. One wonders when the rest of us will be allowed a free 200GB.

  • Those lovely space gray accessories for the iMac Pro are now available for everyone, but not here. Even though the Apple Store pages have been updated (iPad) these new accessories are not shown for users in Thailand.

  • The main event concerned teacher-student management programs that work on the iPads (teachers use Macs).

  • Apple Classroom is coming to the Mac. There is a "Brand new app called Schoolwork being introduced. Free cloud-based app to make it easy to assign handouts, tap into apps, and get visibility into students' progress" (Jason Snell, 6 Colors). This is coming in June and works with ClasssKit (currently beta).

  • "New ARKit module for the app development with Swift curriculum for Everyone Can Code, so kids can build AR stuff now too (Jason Snell, 6 Colors).

I will be digesting some of the information during the day and may write more later. Now, the main event. . . .

Whose data is it anyway?

Last week I had a brief outline of the problems that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica seemed to have, but as news coming out was changing the picture minute by minute. It was obvious that more would be revealed. I was not disappointed.

Over the weekend I had a look at a video of the Keynote presentation that Nix made a year ago in Germany at the Online Marketing Rockstars conference, in which he clinically outlined his company's approach to the use of data that was made available to them. It was an amazingly clever use of data and the huge quantities that they were able to gather meant that they were able to form quite accurate pictures of people and their attitudes.

Using such data for commercial purposes (he outlined a campaign for Colgate) and for political purposes will have different outcomes, and when government systems are (eventually) involved, this will change the lives of people. I looked at this video made a few months ago already having seen the Channel 4 report that secretly filmed Nix and an associate offering ethically questionable approaches to swinging elections (there were also legitimate methods outlined).

It was interesting to watch panel members and some in the audience as the penny dropped at this event last year and they asked about his concerns about putting a "pussy-grabber" in the White House. I think they were more annoyed by his amoral replies: we just used the data. I was trying to think of other examples of such separation from the results of one's actions: the makers of Zyklon B (we just make the stuff, what the nazis do with it is not up to us); guns don't kill people, people do; or the priggish colonel in Bridge Over the River Kwai, who fails to see until the last moment just what he is doing. I am sure there are more.

Nix was removed from the company in the days after the first reports of the use of Facebook data from 50 million users. From then politicians have been coming out of the woodwork, Mark Zuckerberg has been in defense mode (see more below) and had to admit safeguards had not been properly used, FB might be open to regulation, and changes would be made. He took out full page advertisements in several newspapers (ironic considering the way Facebook is one of the forces destroying print media), but it is clear that Facebook is in cover-my-arse mode. The share price tumbled.

Part of the problem is apps that are designed to collect data and to which so many people sign up without reading the T&C. The Cambridge Analytica app asked politely for users to share some information about themselves, but many did not notice that they were also including information about their friends. We sign up for many other apps that gather our data - just signing up for Facebook hands over a lot of information - and it just keeps going. India's PM, Modi is under a lot of criticism this week as his Facebook app allegedly sends data about those who sign up for it to a third party without their consent.

Official App of Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. It brings to you latest information, instant updates & helps you contribute towards various tasks. It provides a unique opportunity to receive messages and emails directly from the Prime Minister.

The data has been traced to an American company, although the app has apparently been updated as a result of the controversy (Reuters, Business Insider).

As well as governments in the US and UK, Singapore had some sharp questions for Facebook over this in a session that was about fake news. Google and Twitter were also at the session when Simon Milner (vice president of public policy for APAC) who was one of those representing Facebook (and who may also have mislead the UK authorities), clashed with Singapore's Law and Home Affairs minister, K Shanmugam about Facebook data and Cambridge Analytica. Miller asked the Minister why he was concerning himself with developments that happened in another continent, which did not go down well. There is an interesting video with the report on The Drum (Shawn Lim).

The problems for Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were expanded somewhat in a Doc Searls Weblog item (Harvard EDU). Everyone does it (actually not me - no cookies on this site) and online publishing thrives (or tries) by using as much user data as it can. The blog points out that many online publishers are "just as guilty as Facebook of leaking . . . readers' data to other parties" and there is ample proof in this article. For more on this, see the comments below on the evidence given to the UK Parliamentary Committee just this week.

There is much to digest in this article. We have seen similar warnings before, including about the NYTimes when it was shown that just looking at one page might activate links to several others (none of which notify the reader) and all record the user data. And just because it is anonymized is of little solace.

It appeared to become a whole lot worse for some at Cambridge Analytica over the weekend when whistle-blowers confirmed that - in contravention of a number of laws - they had been taking major roles in the use and analysis of data that was used in some campaigns in US election. As some of those linked to the company - which is even now reinventing itself - include well known names like Bannon, Bolton and the Mercers (and more), this is increasingly looking like an assault on the democratic processes, and with foreigners doing some of the spade-work, laws have been broken. This was discussed several times by CA staff but they were assured all was well (Craig Timberg and Tom Hamburger, Washington Post).

Along with this, it is also alleged that the highly sophisticated psychometric algorithms used by CA to target mental vulnerabilities among the electorate may actually have been developed (and owned) by owned by the UK Ministry of Defense and/or the US Military. These had been used eerlier in theatres of war like Iraq, to influence the hearts and minds of citizens there, and they were used in the US election (Brian and Ed Krassenstein, IRNet).

It also became apparent after some revelations in the UK, and the unfair outing of one of those involved, that the Brexit campaign might also have been using illegal means to shift money amongst the campaigns. And of course with the use of data analyzed by CA, the close result was probably directly affected by their manipulations (Roger Cottrell, The London Economic).

Parliamentary Committee

I watched part of the Parliamentary Committee meeting held by British lawmakers and one speaker was Christopher Wylie the red-headed whistle-blower who perhaps started all this (or at least opened the door). As well as his apparently helpful comments, another speaker was asked about the data he began to discover that Facebook held and used. A change was made to the Facebook tool allowing all users information about 8 weeks activity.

Facebook suggests that more would be disproportionately difficult to provide (my italics). In other words, the speaker suggested, they cannot be bothered to make the effort. He also told the committee that in the course of his tracking down of the data Facebook was holding - a process that took around a year - he discovered several advertisers and sources, such as insurance companies and Booze Allen Hamilton (don't we remember them from Edward Snowden?) all claimed they had permission to use his data, yet he had never given such permission.

The Parliamentary Committee investigating how social media data is being used is so fired up about what has been done by Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and its related organisations like SCL, that it invited Mark Zuckerberg, but he has declined a summons from the committee. "In a statement a Facebook spokesperson said it will be offering its CTO or chief product officer to answer questions" (Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch). Would he dare also decline an invitation from the Senate or Congress?

I have been disappointed especially over the last few months by the way that advertisements and postings of almost no relevance to me have been appearing in my timeline. I would love to dump this, but it is about the only surefire way I can communicate with my students (and they with me), while Instagram is quite useful: I follow some of the many photo professionals who also like this.

I did decide to look at what data Facebook recorded about me, which can be downloaded (on a computer) using General Account Settings where there is a link: Download a copy of your Facebook data. It of course requires password entry and a couple of emails. My archive, when it was eventually available was over 750MB so took a couple of minutes to download. What I did not have was the reported phone activity.

Facebook Data

The reason for the apparent omission was made clear later when Rene Ritchie (iMore) pointed out that the iPhone does not allow this. Android? Only after Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). I know a lot of people with smartphones whose OS is never updated and that means their data is open to scraping. iOS never allowed it.

And don't forget Google. Like Facebook, they earn their considerable income from monetising user data. I avoid this as much as I can, apart from Google Ads, which have also been performing poorly of late. Maybe I should dump the whole thing. Many of my colleagues and students collaborate via Google and every time they do, or use Google Photos, or one of the other services, some data is scraped.

But then, as Zuckerberg said in a weak defence of his company being caught in the middle of the recent events, you give permission for them to do this.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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