Millions Of Facebook Profiles Were ‘Harvested’ In US Election Breach

The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.

A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica, a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon, used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.

The New York Times is reporting that copies of the data harvested for Cambridge Analytica could still be found online; its reporting team had viewed some of the raw data.

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising.

The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election. It comes only weeks after indictments of 13 Russians by special counsel Robert Mueller which stated they had used the platform to perpetrate “information warfare” against the US.
Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are one focus of an inquiry into data and politics by the British Information Commissioner’s Office. Separately, the Electoral Commission is also investigating what role Cambridge Analytica played in the EU referendum.

In February both Facebook and the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, told a parliamentary inquiry on fake news: that the company did not have or use private Facebook data.

Simon Milner, Facebook’s UK policy director, when asked if Cambridge Analytica had Facebook data, told MPs: “They may have lots of data but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.”

Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, told the inquiry: “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.”

Wylie, a Canadian data analytics expert, who worked with Cambridge Analytica and Kogan to devise and implement the scheme, showed a dossier of evidence about the data misuse to the Observer which appears to raise questions about their testimony. 

He has passed it to the National Crime Agency’s cybercrime unit and the Information Commissioner’s Office. It includes emails, invoices, contracts and bank transfers that reveal more than 50 million profiles, mostly belonging to registered US voters, were harvested from the site in one of the largest ever breaches of Facebook data.

Facebook said that it was also suspending Wylie from accessing the platform while it carried out its investigation, despite his role as a whistleblower.

At the time of the data breach, Wylie was a Cambridge Analytica employee, but Facebook described him as working for Eunoia Technologies, a firm he set up on his own after leaving his former employer in late 2014. The evidence Wylie supplied to UK and US authorities includes a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers sent to him in August 2016, asking him to destroy any data he held that had been collected by GSR, the company set up by Kogan to harvest the profiles.

Facebook denies that the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by GSR and Cambridge Analytica was a data breach. It said in a statement that Kogan “gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels” but “did not subsequently abide by our rules” because he passed the information on to third parties.

Kogan, who has previously unreported links to a Russian university and took Russian grants for research, had a licence from Facebook to collect profile data, but it was for research purposes only. So when he hoovered up information for the commercial venture, he was violating the company’s terms. Kogan maintains everything he did was legal, and says he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.

The Observer has seen a contract dated 4 June 2014, which confirms SCL, an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, entered into a commercial arrangement with GSR, entirely premised on harvesting and processing of Facebook data.

Cambridge Analytica spent nearly $1m on data collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behaviour.

The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool. It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft messages more likely to resonate.

Guardian:       Independent:       BBC

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