By Michael McCurry
Last month, news broke of a massive private data breach conducted by the political research firm Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica, the American branch of the British voter research group SLC, was able to harvest the private Facebook information of an estimated 87 million people across the U.S. and around the world. Cambridge Analytica was able to obtain this information through a third-party Facebook app developed by Cambridge University researcher Aleksander Kogan called “thisisyourdigitallife.”
As a part of the app, hundreds of thousands of users were asked to take a personality test and agree to relinquish their private info in exchange for a small payment. However, unbeknownst to the agreed users, the app also gathered all the private info of their entire friends lists. With access to the users’ friends lists, Cambridge Analytica was able to collect such a massive amount of private user data which included people’s names, locations and genders as well as what things users have “liked” on Facebook. Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, told Today Show host Savanna Guthrie in a live interview last month that the British data firm planned to use this information to exploit “the mental vulnerabilities of people” with targeted political messages.
The news of Cambridge Analytica’s data mining has caused public and government backlash in both America and the United Kingdom. Facebook has also become a target of outrage as lawmakers point to the social media giants’ cryptic user agreement and hidden privacy settings as the main reason Cambridge Analytica was able to collect so much data.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to testify before Congress next week to address Facebook’s role in the matter. Zuckerberg has also been called to testify before the British Parliament, as U.K. lawmakers believe Facebook’s inaction violated their privacy laws.
U.S. lawmakers have targeted Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 election, claiming their services to the Trump campaign violated American campaign finance laws. The research firm’s founders, Stephen Bannon, a former chief strategist to President Trump and former Editor-in-Chief of Breitbart News, and Robert Mercer, a far-right mega-donor and owner of Breitbart News, played a very active role in the Trump campaign.
An anonymous survey of 100 Drew Students conducted by the Acorn found that 90 percent of those students asked currently have Facebook accounts. Out of those students with an account, 34 percent of respondents say they use their account at least multiple times a week
“(…) the selling of our private information opens us up to God knows how much manipulation through specially targeted ads,” said Nate Chada (‘21). “The saddest part is, though, we’re the ones who have agreed to it by signing up in the first place.”
Chada also mentioned Facebook’s terms of agreement, saying, “I bet it’s in the terms of agreement, but I wouldn’t know. I didn’t read them. Nobody does.”
The Acorn survey also shows Drew students’ concern with possible info breaches like the one done by Cambridge Analytica. Around 72 percent of students polled say they are some level of concerned with instances like the Facebook scandal.
Regarding legality, approximately 79 percent of students say data collecting similar to that of Cambridge Analytica should be illegal, a matter Congress has been and will continue to consider.