(this post has updates below)
If “psychographic profiler” sounds like a creepy stalker that’s because it is.
Technology is supposed to unite people. To make the world a better place; where globalism and a ‘global public square’ mean more folks are connected and invested in people’s lives elsewhere. Culling and exploiting psychological profiles of millions of American voters is NOT how you do that. Trump’s digital operation might yet be deemed a criminal enterprise, but either way—using technology in this way insults the spirit of why the Internet and World Wide Web were conceived in the first place.
This worried me to no end back then; today, we’re learning the ways that yes, in fact, Facebook was permitting outside companies to “harvest” user profiles for the purposes of subversive voter manipulation.
“Facebook trades on your user info,” says Matthew Keys, freelance journalist and former managing editor of Grasswire. We spoke exclusively via Twitter DM about the latest chapter in Facebook’s sordid security story. “Facebook only cares about your privacy insomuch as to prevent getting sued or shut down.”
Matthew has an excellent Medium piece up right now, “A brief history of Facebook’s ever-changing privacy settings,” which details the company’s shifting security goalposts. The post reads like a mash-up of HBO’s Silicon Valley and a b-rate Telenovela.
As you interact with your FB friends, “like” cat videos and peruse FB’s Marketplace, remember: you are Facebook’s product.
“Facebook users have always been the product sold, not the customers served,” Keys’ article reads. “For years, millions of Facebook users who routinely log on to the one billion-plus active accounts have traded their memories and experiences in exchange for a free platform to stay connected and get information.”
As you interact with your friends, ‘like’ cat videos and peruse the Marketplace, remember: you are Facebook’s product.
But that “free exchange” comes with a cost—much of it without users’ knowledge. “Facebook allowed a major data mining operation to harvest user information of tens of millions of accounts as part of a sociopsycho propaganda campaign that almost certainly contributed to the eventual outcome of the 2016 presidential election.”
Let that sink in. A company that prides itself on connecting people far and wide has allowed its system to be used for nefarious purposes by a third-party—and Keys says it’s nearly certain more malicious actors have done similar things. 🌐
We now know, thanks to whistleblower Christopher Wylie and other bombshell investigative reporting, that the bad actor in question was none other than Cambridge Analytica—a prime player in Trump’s digital operation during Election 2016.
The work of Cambridge Analytica—a “psychographics data” firm funded by reclusive billionaire Robert Mercer and launched/helmed by Steve Bannon—always felt super-sketchy to me. We now know why.
“Apps on Facebook were given special permission to harvest data not from just the person who used the app, but it would go into their entire friend network and pull out all of the friend’s data as well,” Wylie told The Guardian. “We only needed to touch a couple hundred thousand people to expand into their entire social network, which would then scale us to most of America.
RELATED: FACEBOOK IS A LIVING, BREATHING CRIME SCENE
“If you were a friend of someone who used the app,” he added, “you’d have no idea that I’d just pulled your data.” By the by, that syphoned data reportedly included status updates, likes and private messages. (Writer’s note: this entire operation has a unmistakable stench; when actual investigations into this matter begin, breeching personal messages will be a bridge too far and will spur class-action lawsuits as well as other fines and penalties from the U.S. government.)
Wylie (who’s now banned from Facebook) along with Alexander Nix, then-CEO of Cambridge Analytica, was given a $15M investment from Robert Mercer, and Wylie remembers popping champagne to celebrate. But Mercer applied pressure immediately, Wylie recalled in his Guardian interview.
Where’s my psychological warfare weapon? —Robert Mercer, as recalled by Wylie
“We got all this money and have a billionaire breathing down our neck saying ‘why don’t I have it yet? where’s my psychological warfare weapon?'”
Which is why Wylie turned to Cambridge University psychology lecturer Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, who built the app responsible for sucking out FB data. “What Kogan offered us was way cheaper, faster and of a quality nothing matched,” Wylie said. Many have speculated that Kogan has been tagged as a scapegoat in this situation, and has made few public comments about the matter.
I e-mailed Dr. Kogan for comment—including a question as to whether or not he’s considering legal action against Facebook—and will report back if I hear anything. 🌐
Nine days after Zuckerberg flippantly said it was “crazy” that false news impacted the election, President Obama warned him to take it seriously. Even earlier, Steve Jobs warned him to take care with it, too. Facebook was aware of meddling as far back as spring 2016—quite likely earlier—but took no action. And it was only in light of the Channel 4 News investigative report that caused FB to suspend Cambridge Analytica from its platform.
RELATED: SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANIES BEHAVING BADLY
Facebook is not the only bad actor here. Google, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter and others were all used as vehicles to spread misinformation and poison the bloodstream of American politics. I’ll be updating this post with any relevant news, and I’ll do further reporting on other social platforms in the future.
Meantime, beware creepy stalkers. They’re hiding in the shadows ready to pick your pocket. 🔵
Writer’s footnote: if you follow people who’ve been correct with their warnings about this topic, please signal-boost them. This is not any sort of brag, but I’ve been writing on this topic of data security and social media relentlessly in this space for nearly 2 years and would really appreciate the shares. And believe me, this is NOT something I’m happy to be right about, because it’s ripped our democracy at the seams. As an independent journalist I’ll stay on this story and update here as events warrant.
UPDATE (26 March 2018): FTC has opened a non-public investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices, per Micah Grimes.
UPDATE 2 (29 March 2018): My Twitter pal Evan Shapiro shared his last Facebook post, and it’s a doozy. “I cannot be party to a platform who only does the right thing when they’re caught doing wrong. I won’t support a company built on deception.”
UPDATE 3 (29 March 2018): Zuckerberg has agreed to testify in the United States, but snubs request from UK Parliament.
UPDATE 5 (30 March): Anderson Cooper interviews Dr. Aleksandr Kogan about his role in designing the app for Cambridge & Chris Wylie.
UPDATE 6 (30 March): With a hat-tip to frequent collaborator Rob “Reenage” O’Connor, Bruce Schneier argues that U.S. laws must be updated to address companies that routinely spy on us. “Surveillance capitalism has operated without constraints for far too long.”
He is the author of two books (Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way. Sign up for the mailing list, follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram–and check out the book links below. Make sure to comment often–cranky loves company.
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