Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal: the story so far

Facebook is currently facing what could be its biggest scandal ever.

It all kicked off earlier this week, when a Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower made explosive revelations alleging that Facebook users’ data had been exploited by the company in order to influence the 2016 US Presidential election.

While the story quickly became huge news, sparking a widespread #deletefacebook campaign, it was a long few days before the company at the epicentre of the controversy officially responded.

On Thursday (22 March), we woke up to a statement from Mark Zuckerberg, finally addressing what he called ‘the Cambridge Analytica situation’. Slight understatement there, Mark.

Before we dive into his response, I’ll quickly give you a bit of background.

Cambridge Analytica is a controversial data consultancy company that claims (on its own website) to use ‘data to change audience behaviour’.

Back in 2013, Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan created a personality quiz app on Facebook that collected the data of users (by consent) and – crucially – also that of their friends.

In 2014 Facebook put a stop to the practice of a users permitting access to their friends’ data without consent to prevent abusive apps. But by then it was too late.

Cambridge Analytica had purchased the data of around 50 million users (even though only 270,000 had actually completed the quiz) from Kogan. Note that the sharing of data in this way without consent is against Facebook’s policies.

It’s alleged that this data was then used to psychologically profile people and manipulate their voting behaviour in favour of Trump.

This is of course potentially very serious and has put privacy concerns majorly in the spotlight.

Let’s get back to Mark’s long-awaited statement, published yesterday, which was also supported by an interview with CNN.

The Facebook founder and CEO acknowledged there had been a ‘breach of trust’ (interestingly not referred to as a ‘breach of data’), and said he was ‘really sorry’ and would be ‘happy’ to testify before Congress ‘if it’s the right thing to do’.

Mark reminded everyone that crucial steps to protect user data took place in 2014, but importantly pledged to take further action now to prevent anything like this ever happening again.

Here’s the lowdown on that:

  • All apps that had access to large amounts of information pre-2014 will be investigated
  • Any app with suspicious activity will be subject to a full audit, and will be banned if they don’t consent
  • If misuse of personally identifiable information is detected during the audit, the app will be banned and Facebook will notify all users involved
  • Developers’ data access will be restricted even further, and access will be removed completely if a user hasn’t activated the app for 3 months
  • Sign-in information will be reduced to: name, profile photo and email
  • Developers will have to get approval for access to posts or other private data
  • A tool will be added to the top of News Feed showing users which apps have access to what information, and giving them an easy way to revoke permissions

Mark also said Cambridge Analytica has been banned from using any Facebook services, and has confirmed the data has been deleted. Worryingly, that claim was also made back in 2015…

Any digital marketer knows how valuable user data is, both in terms of improving brand performance but also in terms of tailoring content to people’s preferences – something that can add real benefit. However, it’s crucial that people have control over their personal data and it’s use.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal will likely have a knock-on effect on digital advertising as a whole. Combined with the upcoming GDPR (a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union), the industry will improve in terms of transparency and trustworthiness, which is definitely a good thing.

After all, if people are more comfortable with the data they are sharing and the advertising they are delivered as a result, they’ll ultimately be much more responsive to the messaging.