A whistleblower who once worked at data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica has revealed how the firm harvested profiles of tens of millions of Facebook users in the UK and the US to target voters with political advertisements.
It has been alleged that Cambridge Analytica's data harvesting campaign was intended to influence voters ahead of the Brexit referendum as well as the 2016 US presidential election.
Data harvesting to aid political campaigns
Cambridge Analytica began their campaign by using a specialised app named thisisyourdigitallife and paying tens of thousands of Facebook users to take personality tests and to allow the firm to use and share their data for 'academic' purposes.
Aside from collecting Facebook data of those who participated in the questionnaire, the app was also used to harvest Facebook data of their friends, thereby harvesting personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users without obtaining prior consent. This campaign took place both during the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election.
The Information Commissioner's Office has begun investigating Cambridge Analytica's data harvesting practices to confirm if the firm harvested data of tens of millions of Facebook users for academic purposes or to aid political campaigns.
“We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used. It’s part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK are using and analysing people’s personal information to micro target voters.
"It is important that the public are fully aware of how information is used and shared in modern political campaigns and the potential impact on their privacy. We are continuing to invoke all of our powers and are pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry. Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously," ICO announced in a new blog post.
"Our investigation into the use of personal data for political campaigns, includes the acquisition and use of Facebook data by SCL, Doctor Kogan and Cambridge Analytica. This is a complex and far reaching investigation for my office and any criminal or civil enforcement actions arising from it will be pursued vigorously," said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
She added that the investigation was launched after Cambridge Analytica did not adhere to a Demand for Access to records and data stored by the firm issued by ICO. The firm was asked to share such documents by 7th March but failed to do so.
Are businesses really harvesting our personal data?
Even in the United States, reports about Cambridge Analytica harvesting data of tens of millions of Facebook users to help the Trump campaign influence voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election have raised quite a storm.
“This raises serious questions about the level of detail that Cambridge Analytica knew about users, whether it acquired that information illegally and whether it sought to abuse that information in support of President Trump’s political campaign in the United States or Brexit in the United Kingdom,” said Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee to The Guardian.
“The company has repeatedly touted its ability to influence voters through ‘psychographic’ targeting and has claimed it was the fundamental reason that Donald Trump won the 2016 election. Indeed, it may be that through Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign made use of illegitimately acquired data on millions of Americans in order to help sway the election," he added.
The news has brought to fore the fact that personal data of Facebook users is not secure and can be accessed by any business or analytics firm with the right tools. According to Chris Wylie, the whistleblower who detailed how Cambridge Analytica carried out its data harvesting campaign, Facebook also stayed mum and did not alert users despite being in the know about the operation.
"Facebook has known about this for at least two years and did almost nothing to fix it. This is not new. And it’s only by coming forward that Facebook is now taking action. People need to know this kind of profiling is happening," he told The Guardian.
Following the revelation, Facebook has responded by suspending Chris Wylie along with Cambridge Analytica and has stated that the firm's data harvesting was not a breach. It has also agreed not to carry out a search of Cambridge Analytica's premises upon being requested by the ICO as the same would potentially compromise a regulatory investigation.