Spectre of political interference via big data continues to haunt Facebook

18 Apr 2018

Image: I’m Friday/Shutterstock

Far more than 87m Facebook users’ data may have been compromised as implications of big data combined with microtargeting are only beginning to be understood.

In key exchanges in the UK and Ireland, the spectre of more political interference from beyond borders using big data reappeared and could haunt Facebook for some time.

After what was a revealing day for Facebook, there are fears that Cambridge Analytica may have had more quizzes in the wild.

In the UK, former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser revealed that the political consultancy had a suite of personality quizzes designed to extract personal data from the social network, of which Aleksandr Kogan’s This Is Your Digital Life was just one example.

Kaiser wrote in evidence to the House of Commons’ digital culture, media and sport select committee: “The Kogan/GSR datasets and questionnaires were not the only Facebook-connected questionnaires and datasets which Cambridge Analytica used. I am aware, in a general sense, of a wide range of surveys which were done by CA or its partners, usually with a Facebook login – for example, the ‘sex compass’ quiz.

“I do not know the specifics of these surveys or how the data was acquired or processed. But I believe it is almost certain that the number of Facebook users whose data was compromised through routes similar to that used by Kogan is much greater than 87m, and that both Cambridge Analytica and other unconnected companies and campaigns were involved in these activities,” Kaiser wrote.

With regard to pitches to clients, she subsequently told the committee that not all quizzes were designed by Cambridge Analytica and that there were others from other entities that were designed to harvest data from individuals using Facebook.

The issue that has rocked Facebook is how these third-party apps could have been used to harvest data that in turn could enable entities to selectively market to users in order to deliver political outcomes, including fears that such tampering affected the US presidential election and the Brexit vote in 2016.

Facebook apologises and reveals View Ads capability for Ireland

Indeed, before an Oireachtas committee of senators and Dáil deputies in Ireland yesterday (17 April), Facebook’s vice-president for global policy, Joel Kaplan – accompanied by country manager Gareth Lambe and public policy head Niamh Sweeney – apologised for the social network’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

He said that Facebook could have done more and should have warned the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) in Ireland when it first learned of the situation.

Kaplan said that what had happened represented a violation of trust and Facebook is deeply sorry. He said the company is working on tools to restore trust for the Facebook community to ensure people feel comfortable using the platform, knowing their data is safe.

As part of this, Facebook revealed that Ireland will be among the first countries in the world to receive a View Ads feature on 25 April – a month ahead of the crucial Eighth referendum on 25 May – that will offer people greater transparency with the ads they see on Facebook.

Kaplan told the committee that Facebook is working hard to establish if further breaches may have occurred that may have in any way compromised users’ privacy. The committee is adjourned until 24 April.

The View Ads feature will go global in June and a second phase will identify who has paid for a particular ad as well as providing data on the reach of the ad. This ability could prove crucial in future elections and referenda because one of the upshots to emerge from the Oireachtas committee meetings yesterday is that there is nothing to stop foreign interests taking out political ads in different countries.

In one exchange, senator Michael McDowell sought confirmation from DPC Helen Dixon as to whether there was anything in data protection law that could stop a foreign organisation from running online ads targeting voters in the forthcoming referendum.

He gave the example of a pro-choice movement in Northern Ireland putting €1m worth of selective advertising on the internet. In relation to targeting online, Dixon said that yes, such an entity could purchase advertising with Facebook.

Dixon said there is a concern that the autonomy of individuals in future elections and referenda could be potentially jeopardised by combining big-data analytics with microtargeting capabilities on social media.

The View Ads capability revealed by Facebook will no doubt help users to spot sources of propaganda.

In related news, Facebook chief privacy officer Erin Egan and deputy general counsel Ashlie Beringer revealed that every EU user on Facebook will receive a request asking them to review important information about Facebook users and their data ahead of GDPR. This will include choices about the kind of ads they will receive from Facebook’s partners and whether or not they wish to continue sharing political, religious and relationship information on their profile.

EU users will also be asked if they wish to use new facial-recognition technology that will detect if others may be using their image as their profile picture or elsewhere.

With more quizzes potentially in the wild, the combination of big data with microtargeting and the cross-border ability of entities to get involved in overseas elections, the spectre of political interference may haunt Facebook and other online giants for some time.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years