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The Facebook Fiasco

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2.20 million users. 67 apps. One huge scandal.

In March of 2018, reporters from the New York Times, The Observer of London, and The Guardian obtained a cache of documents that exposed how data collection firm Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained massive amounts of data from Facebook user profiles to create voter profiles. Even worse, The Times discovered that people from Cambridge Analytica made contact with executives from the Lukoil Company, an oil company with ties to the Russian government. These reports have produced a perfect storm that has dominated the news for the past several months, culminating in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Cambridge Analytica going bankrupt. But now that the worst of the scandal has passed, it’s time to look back at the events that led up to where we are now and ask the all-important question- why should this matter to me?

Note: All information in the proceeding article was obtained from the New York Times. Their coverage of the scandal can be found on their website mobile.nytimes.com. 

The story really began in 2014, when Cambridge Analytica harvested the private data of tens of millions of users. The firm’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, had secured a $15 million investment from Republican donor Robert Mercer and the support of Donald Trump’s future campaign adviser Stephen K. Bannon with the promise of tools that would allow them to identify the personalities of American voters and manipulate them. In order to obtain the data needed to make these tools work, Nix turned to Russian- American psychological researcher Aleksandr Kogan. Dr. Kogan wanted to conduct a study using an app that would test a user’s personality. The app would then take data from the person using the app. Cambridge Analytica paid Dr. Kogan $800000 for the data, data which went far beyond just friends and preferences. According to Dr. Kogan, the program could predict everything from political leanings to how introverted a user is. The Times also found that the same program may have been used in the British vote on Brexit, or the British exit from the European Union.

The Times soon released another piece revealing that despite Nix’s previous comments to the contrary, Cambridge Analytica and its parent firm SCL (also run by Nix) had  dealings with Russia. Specifically, former Cambridge Analytica contractor Christopher Wylie revealed that the firm had been in contact with Russian oil company Lukoil. According to Wylie, Lukoil was very interested in the way the firm’s program could be used to influence elections. So far it has not been revealed if these talks ever amounted to anything, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller has requested records of these meetings for his investigation into whether Donald Trump colluded with Russia in getting elected.

Once the Times articles were released they caused international outrage. Both American and British lawmakers called for an investigation into the Facebook leak, and Congress called Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the House and Senate. The Federal Trade Commission quickly moved to investigate whether Facebook had violated an early agreement to safeguard user data.

Facebook soon found itself the target of international anger at their apparent mismanagement of data. Many began deleting their accounts in protest. At around the same time, Facebook’s top security official, Alex Stamos, exited the company over disagreement over how to handle the discontent surrounding Facebook’s handling of disinformation. And all the while, CEO Mark Zuckerberg remained silent. Then, a few days later, Zuckerberg stepped up and gave an interview with the New York Times in which he explained the steps his company was taking to address the crisis.

Further investigation by the Times revealed that Cambridge had provided future Trump national security adviser John Bolton with earlier versions of its software. This was apparently the first time that this software had been employed in an American election. Also, Facebook raised the count of hacked profiles from 50 million to 87 million, most of whom were in the United States. The Times also dug into the app used by Cambridge to access user profiles-the app designed by Dr. Kogan- and found that it was much larger than originally thought. It was attached to a psychology questionnaire that users allowed to access their profiles in order to take the quiz. The app then proceeded to harvest the data and send it to Cambridge.

Finally, Mark Zuckerberg came to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress. He testified before the Senate and House consecutively and admitted that government regulations on Facebook could help fix the problem and prevent it from happening in the future. A few weeks later, Cambridge Analytica declared bankruptcy, citing lack of business after the scandal. Most recently, Mr. Wylie revealed that Steve Bannon used Cambridge Analytica to suppress minority voters.

So, onto the big question: what makes this so important? Simply put, this scandal shows how powerful a tool social media can be, especially in the wrong hands. This revelation could lead to federal regulations on social media and a more stringent monitoring system to prevent hacks. There is also the Russia connection, a connection that could lead to irrefutable proof that Russia interfered in the 2016 election or not. All told, the Facebook fiasco has brought to light new issues that must be faced if we are to maintain the democratic process that is essential to our freedom.

 

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The Facebook Fiasco