eXtensions - Wednesday 28 March 2018
eXtensions - The Wednesday File (50): Facebook and Cambridge Analytica - The Widening Gyre
By Graham K. Rogers
Apple Education EventWhile I was asleep, Apple held an education-flavoured event in Chicago and a number of announcements, updates and product releases were announced:
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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 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.
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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