Cambridge Analytica

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The Grade

A solid B. It is very well put together with great interviews and great graphics but it’s big drawback is it doesn’t tell the story very clearly. While the ethical issues were explored well, it wasn’t clear why Cambridge Analytica was in trouble legally, and how David Brooks, The Parson School of Design Professor, was connected.  Wikipedia did help sort it out.

The Story

An Individual’s Right to Control Personal Data

David Carroll, Parsons School of Design Associate Professor of Media Design, requested his data profile from Cambridge Analytica (CA) in 2017. “I had been very suspicious of the company as a kind of psyops contractor/dark arts Black Ops unit,“ he said. They gave him his name, zip code, age and party affiliation, all public information. Carroll knew they had more. The deadline came and went for CA to release the information and rather than do it, they pleaded guilty to criminal charges for not turning over the data and were fined 15,000 pounds.

Two questions came out of this lawsuit: Why doesn’t an individual easily have access to data about themselves and Why wouldn’t CA share the data they had?

Strategic Communication Labs (SCL)

SCL was a private British behavioral research and strategic communication company. The founder felt that mass opinion could be shifted through academic insights gained through psychologists and anthropologists in behavioral dynamics. After some commercial success, SCL expanded into military and political arenas. It was involved in military disinformation campaigns through social media branding and voter targeting. In other words, psychographics as a weapon.

Trinidad and Tobago

In 2009 SCL entered the prime minister election for Trinidad and Tobago. The two political parties in this small Caribbean country were divided along racial lines: one party for the Indians and one party for the blacks. SCL put together a campaign aimed at young blacks called, Join the Gang with a catchy saying, Do So! Do So! The campaign was to nurture a resistance to participating in politics that were perceived as corrupt and to encourage demonstrating your resistance by not voting. This campaign was enough to swing the election by 6% and give the win to the Indian party. The subsequent winning prime minister came under investigation for funding this campaign.

Cambridge Analytica (CA)

CA was started by Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer. It operated out of the U.S. because its operation would be illegal in Europe with its stricter privacy laws. The firm cut its teeth on campaigns for Brexit and Ted Cruz’s Presidential pursuit. Aleksandr Kogan was a data scientist at Cambridge University who developed an app called, “This is your digital life.” CA used this app with an informed consent process to reach several hundred thousand Facebook users who agreed to complete a survey for academic use. According to Facebook this academic research was approved.

However, what CA did was use this app to collect personal information on the people who agreed to take the survey as well as the personal information of all their friends on Facebook. Through this survey CA had information on 87 million users with over 5000 data points each. CA then modeled those personalities until they found enough “persuadables” in the swing states that could affect the Presidential election. They determined that only 70,000 votes by these persuadables could decide the election. They then created advertisements and videos that would be the most effective in persuading a particular person in a particular location for a particular political event. Through CA the Trump campaign had 5.9 million visual ads on Facebook while the Clinton campaign had 69,000.

Was This Ethical?

If no laws were broken, should this be allowed? Is it breaking trust with consumers when we manipulate them through “fake” ads with private information? Is there an evasion of accountability? If our personal data is out there being used against us in ways we don’t understand, should governments police that? Is advertising at the individual level any different/worse than commercials and campaigns done on a more mass scale via TV, email and snail mail? The documentary raised many of these questions and clearly felt there was an ethical issue, but didn’t resolve best practices for dealing with this.

Federal Campaign Law

It turns out there probably was some unlawful coordination between the Super Pac run by Robert Mercer that supported Trump and the Trump campaign. PAC’s are not allowed to coordinate strategy with the campaign’s they are supporting. The CEO of CA, Alexander Nix, was recorded saying that it was decided that the Trump campaign would take the high road and the Mercer Super PAC would do the negative attacks. Of course it didn’t help when the CEO of CA was caught on tape saying they were entrapping political opponents with bribes and sexual favors.

Has Anything Changed?

In July 2019 the FTC fined Facebook $5 billion to settle the investigation into the improper use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica. SCL and CA liquidated previous to this decision. There have been no changes to the law regarding use of personal data on the internet. A former official of CA started a firm called Data Propria and has been working for President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election effort.

Is it great marketing or unethical behavior? These questions arise in other applications in the data world. Contact the Data Science and Analytics recruiters at Smith Hanley Associates to discuss these questions and other opportunities further.


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