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What is Cambridge Analytica and how will it affect the elections?

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“What happens on Social Media, stays on Google forever”- David Alston. Well, this quote might not be really pleasing especially for Mark Zuckerberg since the CEO has been in the news quite lately for Facebook’s failure in keeping user’s data private. Let’s find out what is Cambridge Analytica and how will it affect the elections.

How did Cambridge Analytica lead to Facebook’s breach of user’s privacy? 

Facebook is under international investigations after news broke about the illicit harvesting of user’s personal data. According to a whistleblower, Cambridge Analytica (CA) gathered data from 50 million users, developed a software program and predicted the users’ voting patterns. Then through micro-targeted ads, it influenced the US citizens’ voting decisions.  Cambridge Analytica obtained users’ data through a Facebook-linked app called “thisisyourdigitallife”. Through this app, CA member Aleksandr Kogan paid Facebook users in exchange for a detailed personality test which was supposedly done for academic research purposes. This app not only pulled away users’ personal details but also took the test takers’ friends’ personal details without their consent. It thus breached Facebook’s Platform policy and along with his associates, allegedly built a software platform for influencing the US elections and sold it to Donald Trump. The result was that around quarter of a million took the test willingly but 50 million people ended up having their private information being sold for political and financial reasons without their consent.

How did the Zuckerberg react to the Cambridge Analytica issue?   

Facebook became aware of CA’s breach back in 2016 but waited for months before ordering CA to delete the data. The consulting firm ignored the warning and Facebook also never followed up to check. Apparently, Facebook realized its mistake when media questioned and exposed CA’s work. Zuckerberg responded by posting on Facebook regarding the issue, 5 days after the story broke. He promised that the company will investigate all third-party applications that had access to a large amount of data before 2014 and also proposed limited access to user data if an application has not been used for three months. Moreover, he also proposed to reduce the amount of information to be given when a user signs up for an app and if an app wants more information, then the user will have to sign a contract to grant permission. Zuckerberg repeated his pledge to take action in an interview with CNN. On March 25, Facebook took out full-page ads in several UK & US newspapers with quotes about Zuckerberg further action.

Although it operates in the USA, Cambridge Analytica is a UK based company which means that the data scandal could have global repercussions. It worked on the Brexit referendum and has catered to politicians worldwide. Given its present status, CA may not be the only company that had obtained or purchased information from third-party apps. Considering Facebook’s inability to keep a check on CA, we have no way of knowing that how many other companies could have been using our private information to influence democratic elections. The US, UK & EU investigations have only begun, but they could have major repercussions on how Facebook and other social media companies are required to protect user data in the future.

Did Cambridge Analytica have any influence on Brexit? 

On March 26th, the FTC officially announced that Facebook would be under investigation for its fault and ignorance. The FTC also announced that it could fine Facebook $40,000 for each violation of the 2011 settlement; multiply it by 50 million, and Facebook could face a financial catastrophe. Along with FTC, the British ICO is investigating whether CA could have used the similar voter data to influence UK citizens during Brexit referendum. The EU’s Electoral Commission and Australia’s Privacy Commissioner have also piped up, with both officially investigating Facebook’s actions to determine if the data of their voters were used without authorization. Facebook also clarified that it doesn’t sell any of its data and doesn’t record the content of one’s messages and calls.

Recent reports claim that Cambridge Analytica still has not deleted Facebook user’s data and the company has volunteered to undergo an independent third-party audit to clear its name. Still, its actions remain murky, with company’s CEO Alexander Nix being suspended and facing “full and independent investigation” for his comments made to undercover Channel 4 journalists. Those comments detailed the firm’s use of bribery, blackmail and other unsavory techniques to compromise politicians and impact geopolitical situations on behalf of its clients. Facebook in a series of comments said that it is committed to working with the UK’s ICO to get clarifications on the matter. 

Facebook sources claim that Zuckerberg has come to terms with the fact that escalating pressure from the media, politicians and the public means he will have to testify before Congress within a matter of weeks, according to CNN Money. The Senate Judiciary Committee has invited Zuckerberg to testify at an 10 April hearing, with requests also being sent to the CEOs of Alphabet Inc, Google’s parent company, and Twitter Inc. The House Energy and Commerce Committee and Senate Commerce committees have also asked him to testify but have not set dates. There have been some suggestions that Zuckerberg may testify in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee on 12 April.

Recent Updates

Facebook has revealed it has suspended Canadian political consultancy AggregateIQ (AIQ) after reports that the company may have improperly had access to the personal data of users of the social media network.

The suspension comes after whistleblower Christopher Wylie claimed there were linksbetween AIQ and Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL. This has led to AIQ being mentioned in connection with claims that the Brexit vote was “unfairly Influenced” by precisely targeted online advertising. The social media network said on Wednesday that the personal information of up to 87 million users, mostly in the US, may have been improperly shared with CA which is a significant increase on the 50 million estimate cited by many news outlets.

Facebook has  issued a statement saying: “In light of recent reports that AggregateIQ may be affiliated with SCL and may, as a result, have improperly received Facebook user data, we have added them to the list of entities we have suspended from our platform while we investigate.Our internal review continues, and we will cooperate fully with any investigations by regulatory authorities.”

AIQ has also issued statement in its website defending itself: “AggregateIQ is a digital advertising, web and software development company based in Canada. It is and has always been 100 per cent Canadian owned and operated. AggregateIQ has never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica or SCL. Aggregate IQ has never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica. Chris Wylie has never been employed by AggregateIQ. AggregateIQ works in full compliance within all legal and regulatory requirements. It has never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity. All work AggregateIQ does for each client is kept separate from every other client. AggregateIQ has never managed, nor did we ever have access to, any Facebook data or database allegedly obtained improperly by Cambridge Analytica.”

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