You may have heard of the name Cambridge Analytica. The British consulting firm filed for bankruptcy in 2018, after being caught up in a massive scandal surrounding Facebook data leaks. This event most likely influenced the American presidential elections and Brexit referendum, but what did exactly happen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal?
Cambridge Analytica & the 2016 Trump campaign
Cambridge Analytica was a British political consulting firm that worked on the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. The company mainly used data analytics to promote the Trump campaign in order to win votes. Cambridge Analytica tried to do this by obtaining a lot of data points on a great number of Facebook users, creating extensive personality profiles on each user. These profiles could be used to identify certain users that would be able to be persuaded to vote on Donald Trump. This way, advertisement could be targeted specifically on the little percentage of people that would make up the swing votes. Just as important was that, by using the Facebook data, Cambridge Analytica was easily able to identify in which state each user was eligible to vote. This meant the advertisement campaign was now able to focus only on the undecided voters in the swing states. They now could excellently make use of a “flaw” in the American democratic system: You don`t need to convince a majority of the voters to win, you just need to convince the right ones.
The Facebook data leak
This Cambridge Analytica way of supporting the Trump campaign was maybe frowned upon by some people, but was in no way illegal. This all changed when the New York Times got ahold of a cache of documents, that proved a enormous set of data to be improperly obtained from Facebook. The dataset contained data on 87 million Facebook users and was secretly used and kept without their permission.
The key figure in the acquisition of the dataset was Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian American who worked at the university of Cambridge. Kogan had created an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” which over 300.000 people downloaded. By downloading the app, people handed Cambridge Analytica access to all their Facebook data. And not only their own data: because of a flaw in the Facebook API the company had access to all the data of their Facebook friends as well.