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The Cambridge Connection: data from millions of Facebook users employed to influence elections

Using loopholes found in various social media privacy policies, one consulting firm was able to hone in on user data to the benefit of its clients’ political campaigns.

Image: Chesnot/ Getty Images, (Courtesy of Google Images)

When internet users open accounts on social media or online shops they rarely look at the fine print of the privacy policy of the website.  Rather, they simply check the box saying the policy was read and move on.  What can be buried in these privacy policies is astonishing, allowing access to personal information and sometimes even the ability to sell personal information.  It was one of these ignored privacy policy boxes on an app called “thisismydigitallife” that led to 50 million Facebook user accounts being exposed to a political consulting firm known as Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica was started as a political consulting firm between Alexander Nix and Steve Bannon as a subsidiary of Strategic Communications Laboratories Group, Inc. (SCL).  Through funding from Robert and Rebekah Mercer, conservative media moguls, Cambridge Analytica branded itself as a firm that could use internet user data to influence voters.  They sought to use a combination of psychology and graphics, termed “psychographics,” on social media to influence how internet users viewed a candidate or an election.  Aleksander Kogan, a Cambridge psychology professor, was hired by SCL to develop a quiz app for Facebook that would allow Facebook users to volunteer information about themselves and their internet usage.  The app is called “thisismydigitallife.”

Facebook apps are a common way third parties receive information about Facebook users who are interested in their products.  Facebook, however, prohibits third party app makers from selling the information they gather.  Professor Kogan did not sell the data he gathered from the 270,000 app users.  Instead, he sold the data of the 50 million other Facebook users that the original 270,000 allowed Kogan to glean from their accounts, lying to Facebook and going unpunished.  The data was then marketed to Cambridge Analytica.

Notable campaigns, including the Trump presidential campaign, used the data provided by the political consulting firm.

Steve Bannon and the Mercers introduced Cambridge Analytica to several Republican campaigns in 2016.  According to Vox, the Mercers, known to be major donors of Republican campaigns around the country, demanded that Republican campaigns wishing to receive campaign funds hire Cambridge Analytica to do their data analysis.  Notable campaigns, including the Trump presidential campaign, used the data provided by the political consulting firm.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) decided to use Cambridge Analytica to help his campaign during the caucus portion of the election cycle.  The Cruz campaign, through Cambridge Analytica, developed its own app to categorize possible voters into groups that would receive specific types of ads.  For example, South Carolina voters were concerned about funding for Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC.   Based on how the voters answered certain questions, the app would label them appropriate for different ads about Fort Jackson.  According to NPR, “’[t]imid traditionalists’ get the ’local pride’ argument; ‘temperamental’ voters hear the economic concerns.  Another group, ‘stoic traditionalists,’ is receiving more of a national security pitch, with warnings that the cuts are part of an Obama administration push to ‘undermine the military.’”  The Cruz campaign, however, became unsatisfied with the firm and ended their contract.

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) used Cambridge Analytica in his re-election campaign in North Carolina.  His campaign paid $345,000 to the consulting firm from 2014 to 2015.  The Tillis campaign wished to target voters through television commercials and direct mailings.  Cambridge Analytica was so pleased with the results of Tillis’s campaign, beating Democrat Kay Hagan by 48,511 votes, that it placed the campaign on its website, highlighting their influence.  The firm’s website stated: “We were able to design and deploy messages tailored to these audiences according to their particular psychographic profiles.  This was done through a telecanvassing program and a large scale direct mail campaign that demonstrably increased their likelihood of voting, and voting Republican.”  Dallas Woodhouse, North Carolina Republican Party executive director, told the News & Observer that the party had no future plans to work with Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica received $6 million from the Trump campaign.

President Donald Trump’s campaign also used Cambridge Analytica’s services.  Steve Bannon, vice president of Cambridge Analytica at the time, contacted the Trump campaign about using the consulting firm to help in the contentious 2016 presidential election.  The Trump campaign hired the firm to advise on many aspects of the campaign.  In an interview with Television 4 News in the United Kingdom, Alexander Nix stated that “[Cambridge Analytica] informed all the strategy,” but the firm did not go as far as to violate federal election laws.  Later, Bannon joined the Trump campaign as a senior advisor and stayed with the Trump administration until August 2017. Cambridge Analytica received $6 million from the Trump campaign.

Federal election law prohibits interference by foreign entities and campaign decisions made by a foreigner.  Cambridge Analytica is based out of London, making it a foreign entity.  Campaigns can hire entities like Cambridge Analytica, but such entities cannot have so much influence in the campaign that they are essentially making decisions.

Mr. Nix’s comments suggest that the firm did not make decisions for the campaign; yet several Cambridge Analytica personnel were dispatched to work with Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director.  The number of personnel working with Parscale rose to 13 individuals.  The group did not use the data Cambridge Analytica received from the Facebook app, but rather from the Republican National Committee’s database.  It is not yet determined whether the group’s influence over the campaign’s digital decisions may have amounted to illegal election activities.

“Our data informed all the strategy.”

Despite the possible illegal nature of Cambridge Analytica’s influence in the Trump campaign, much of the media’s main focus has been on Facebook and its lack of protection for its users.  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has responded to the many criticisms and worries leveled at the social media giant.  In an interview with CNN, Zuckerberg stated, “we [Facebook] have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data and if we can’t do that then we don’t deserve to have the opportunity to serve people.”

After coming under fire for Russian-purchased ads and the spread of fake news, Congress has requested that Zuckerberg testify concerning how Cambridge Analytica got access to personal information data and what Facebook intends to do in the future to protect user privacy.  Zuckerberg has since agreed to personally testify before Congress, rather than allow his legal team to represent him as they did in the previous Congressional hearing.

Ultimately, this situation brings up the future of personal information as a product and user privacy.  Facebook makes money by helping advertisers and apps get to certain data points provided by users.  Facebook itself does not sell the personal information to third parties; however, third parties can use that data to suggest certain products when looking at websites, or even what kind of legislation would pass in a specific district.

Facebook is also not the only social media service or internet platform to use personal information data.  It is likely that few people will take the time to change their privacy settings to limit the information available to third parties, and fewer still will actually stop using these internets services altogether.  Without regulation or having to pay for the service, user data will still be used to fund internet companies with no consequences for those who violate the real human need and expectation of privacy.

Claire Scott
About Claire Scott (17 Articles)
Claire Scott is a third year law student and serves as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Chesapeake, VA, Claire is a Campbell University alumi. After her 1L summer, she worked in the Harnett County NC District Attorney's Office as well as the District 11A Veteran Treatment Court. Her legal interests include estate planning and veteran law.