Cambridge Analytica, Explained

By Shachi Mokashi '21

 Image from Goos3D.

Image from Goos3D.

Over the course of last week, several news portals have reported Cambridge Analytica had access to over 50 million Facebook profiles, giving them the ability to influence targeted digital advertising ranging from commercial products to political campaigning.

Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting firm which mines data to understand the electoral demographic to improve the targeting of a political campaign. According to their website, they have, “Redefined the relationship between data and campaigns. By knowing your electorate better, you can achieve greater influence while lowering overall costs”. Data-driven campaigning is not new. However, the recent revelations around the alliances between Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have raised important questions about data privacy and security.

The access allowed the consulting firm to create psychological profiles of the different demographics in America and influence them accordingly. Did the firm use this data to influence the 2016 Presidential elections? So far, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have denied any involvement.

 Campaigns for which Cambridge Analytica worked. Image from cambridgeanalytica.org.

Campaigns for which Cambridge Analytica worked. Image from cambridgeanalytica.org.

Wired reported, “Facebook suspended both Cambridge and SCL while it investigates whether both companies retained Facebook user data provided by third-party researcher Aleksandr Kogan of the company Global Science Research, a violation of Facebook's terms”.

Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook will change its data sharing services with third-party organizations. Zuckerberg posted an apology on Facebook stating that this incident is a “Breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it”.

The Guardian reported on the blueprint that Cambridge Analytica used for Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. A former employee, Brittany Kaiser, came forward to reveal the 27-page presentation. The Guardian stated in their report that, “None of the techniques described in the document are illegal. However, the scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of data from more than 50 million Facebook users is lifting the lid on an industry that has learned how to closely track the online footprint and daily lives of US voters”.

Channel 4 conducted an investigation into this matter and secretly set up a meeting with the top executives of Cambridge Analytica. The video shows the executives stating that they “ran the digital campaign”, and that their work was crucial in Trump’s win in 2016. These revelations were nothing new. But, the executives soon offer ‘under-the-table’ ways of winning a political campaign: it includes secret email systems and Ukrainian women.

Cambridge Analytica has since fired its CEO, Alexander Nix.