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 joint investigation by The New York Times and the UK’s Observer newspaper found possible violations of Facebook policies by Cambridge Analytica, one of the Trump campaign’s data firms.
The violations relate to Facebook user data that was harvested by a professor’s research project and handed over to Cambridge. On Friday night, after “downplaying” the papers’ findings, according to The Times, Facebook announced that Cambridge Analytica has been suspended from the site.
But keep in mind that it wasn’t the Trump campaign that solicited the collection of the data. Obama, in contrast, was collecting live data on active users right up until Election Day, and at a scale that dwarfed anything the Trump campaign could access.
In 2012, the Obama campaign encouraged supporters to download an Obama 2012 Facebook app that, when activated, let the campaign collect Facebook data both on users and their friends.
According to a July 2012 MIT Technology Review article, when you installed the app, “it said it would grab information about my friends: their birth dates, locations, and ‘likes.’ ”
The campaign boasted that more than a million people downloaded the app, which, given an average friend-list size of 190, means that as many as 190 million had at least some of their Facebook data vacuumed up by the Obama campaign — without their knowledge or consent.
If anything, Facebook made it easy for Obama to do so. A former campaign director, Carol Davidsen, tweeted that “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing.”
This Facebook treasure trove gave Obama an unprecedented ability to reach out to nonsupporters. More important, the campaign could deliver carefully targeted campaign messages disguised as messages from friends to millions of Facebook users.
According to a Time magazine account just after Obama won re-election, “the team blitzed the supporters who had signed up for the app with requests to share specific online content with specific friends simply by clicking a button.”
The effort was called a “game-changer” in the 2012 election, and the Obama campaign boasted that it was “the most groundbreaking piece of technology developed for the campaign.”
The only difference, as far as we can discern, between the two campaigns’ use of Facebook, is that in the case of Obama the users themselves agreed to share their data with the Obama campaign, as well as that of their friends.
The users that downloaded the Cambridge app, meanwhile, were only told that the information would be used for academic purposes. Nor was the data to be used for anything other than academic purposes.