Academic says he’s being scapegoated in Facebook data case
LONDON — An academic who developed the app used by Cambridge Analytica to harvest data from millions of Facebook users said Wednesday he had no idea his work would be used in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and that he’s being scapegoated in the fallout from the affair.
Alexandr Kogan, a psychology researcher at Cambridge University, told the BBC that both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have tried to place the blame on him for violating the social media platform’s terms of service, even though Cambridge Analytica ensured him that everything he did was legal.
“My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” he said. “Honestly, we thought we were acting perfectly appropriately, we thought we were doing something that was really normal.”
Authorities in Britain and the United States are investigating the alleged improper use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political research firm. Facebook shares have dropped some 9 percent, lopping more than $50 billion off the company’s market value, since the revelations were first published, raising questions about whether social-media sites are violating users’ privacy.
Video footage: The head of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, was suspended Tuesday after Britain’s Channel 4 News broadcast hidden camera footage of him suggesting the company could use young women to catch opposition politicians in compromising positions. Footage also showed Nix bragging about the firm’s pivotal role in the Trump campaign.
Nix said Cambridge Analytica handled “all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting” for the Trump campaign and used emails with a “self-destruct timer” to make the firm’s role more difficult to trace.
“There’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing,” he said.
In a statement, Cambridge Analytica’s board said Nix’s comments “do not represent the values or operations of the firm, and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”
Facebook itself is drawing criticism from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic for its alleged failure to protect users’ privacy.
Sandy Parakilas, who worked in data protection for Facebook in 2011 and 2012, told a U.K. parliamentary committee Wednesday that the company was vigilant about its network security but lax when it came to protecting users’ data.
He said personal data, including email addresses and in some cases private messages, was allowed to leave Facebook servers with no real controls on how the data was used after that.
“The real challenge here is that Facebook was allowing developers to access the data of people who hadn’t explicitly authorized that,” he said, adding that the company had “lost sight” of what developers did with the data.
‘Misleading’: On Tuesday, the chairman of the U.K. parliament’s media committee, Damian Collins, said his group has repeatedly asked Facebook how it uses data, but company officials “have been misleading to the committee.”
Meanwhile, Britain’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said she is pursuing a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s servers. She has also asked Facebook to cease its own audit of Cambridge Analytica’s data use.
Denham said the prime allegation against Cambridge Analytica is that it acquired personal data in an unauthorized way, adding that data protection laws require services such as Facebook to have strong safeguards against misuse of data.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Facebook’s latest privacy scandal a “danger signal.” She wants Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s assurances that Facebook is prepared to take the lead on measures to protect user privacy — or Congress may step in.
Kogan’s work involved modeling human behavior through social media. In collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, he developed a Facebook-based personality survey called “This Is Your Digital Life” and paid about 200,000 people to take part. As a result, participants unknowingly gave the researchers access to the profiles of their Facebook friends, allowing them to collect data from millions more users.
Regret: Kogan said Cambridge Analytica approached him to gather Facebook data and provided the legal advice that this was “appropriate.”
“One of the great mistakes I did here was I just didn’t ask enough questions,” he said. “I had never done a commercial project; I didn’t really have any reason to doubt their sincerity. That’s certainly something I strongly regret now.”
He said the firm paid some $800,000 for the work, but it went to participants in the survey.
“My motivation was to get a data set I could do research on; I have never profited from this in any way personally,” he said.