Facebook is once again in hot water over the role its policies may have played in the election.
On Saturday, two explosive reports from The Guardian and The New York Times surfaced alleging that more than 50 million Facebook users had personal data used without their knowledge by Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based data firm employed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
The news quickly set off a firestorm on social media, where Facebook executives attempted to do damage control as a new backlash against the company ensued.
But what actually happened, and what Facebook’s role in all of this was, is more than a little complicated. Here’s what you need to know right now about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.
What is Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica is a political data firm founded in 2013 as an offshoot of another British company called SCL Group. The company, which also has ties to Steve Bannon and Republican mega-donor Robert Mercer, specializes in something it called “psychographic profiling.”
Essentially, the company scrapes data from a number of sources — social media, public records, consumer spending data — and uses that information to predict voting behavior. The firm works with campaigns and other political organizations to help them target key demographics based on their data.
In the United States, Cambridge Analytica is most known for its work with the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election (prior to Trump, the company also worked with 2016 primary candidates Ted Cruz and Ben Carson). The company has credited its use of data with helping the Trump campaign take advantage of key demographic shifts, ultimately leading to an election win.
What did they do?
Facebook announced Friday it was suspending Cambridge Analytica from its platform, banning the company from buying ads or running its Facebook pages. At issue was the firm’s use of ill-gotten user data.
Two subsequent reports in The New York Times and The Guardian revealed just how bad things were. According to the reports, which cited Cambridge Analytica cofounder Christopher Wylie, the firm acquired data pertaining to more than 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge, using the information to create its touted psychographic profiles.
Facebook found out in late 2015, and asked the company to destroy the data. The company said it did, and Facebook apparently left it at that until it got wind of this recent reporting from The Guardian and The New York Times, which alleges that the firm still has copies of the data. (Cambridge Analytica maintains it complied with Facebook’s initial request and denies having used the data in question during the 2016 presidential campaign.)
How did they get all this Facebook data in the first place?
Cambridge Analytica didn’t work alone. The firm partnered with a researcher named Aleksandr Kogan, who started a company named Global Science Research (GSR). Under GSR, Kogan launched a personality quiz app called “thisisyourdigitalife” that he touted as a research experiment used by psychologists.
In total, 270,000 people downloaded the app, according to Facebook. This granted the app access to data about where they lived, their friends lists, and their likes. Kogan then provided this data to Cambridge Analytica, who used it to help build its psychographic profiles.
This is an issue not only because it was a gross violation of Facebook’s developer policies, but also because Kogan misrepresented the entire purpose of the app. Users who thought they were taking a simple online quiz were unwittingly handing over a wealth of personal data that was ultimately used for political purposes.
So how did 270,000 accounts turn into 50 million?
Today, if you give a third-party app access to your Facebook account, that app can only see a limited set of data that you choose to share with it. But that wasn’t always the case.
Prior to 2015, apps could gain access to not only your data but that of your friend list. Unless you had locked down your privacy settings (and most people didn’t), a friend’s app could gain access to an incredible amount of your data.
Kogan’s app exploited this feature and used the personality quiz app to scrape data not just from 270,000 people who downloaded it, but from their friend networks as well, resulting in the harvesting of data from more than 50 million accounts.
We should note that this was acceptable within Facebook’s policies at the time. Developers were allowed to access and use this type of data. Where Kogan and GSR ran afoul of the social network was the way his relationship with Cambridge Analytica led to that data being used in different, non-permissible ways.
What happens now?
Needless to say, Facebook has a lot to answer for. Lawmakers in the U.K. were already investigating Cambridge Analytica for its role in the “Brexit” referendum vote, and politicians are now calling for new testimony from Facebook executives.
In the U.S., Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced Saturday her office was opening a new investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have also called on Facebook to answer further questions about its role. They want to talk to CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, or an executive on the same level.
Facebook could also potentially face hefty fines from the FTC for failing to adequately protect user data, according to The Washington Post.