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Academic who collected 50 million Facebook profiles: ‘We thought we were doing something normal’

Academic who collected 50 million Facebook profiles: ‘We thought we were doing something normal’


Aleksandr Kogan passed his dataset on to Cambridge Analytica, but now says he is being scapegoated

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The academic at the heart of the Facebook data scandal has said he is being used as a scapegoat by the US tech giant. Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University, collected a dataset of some tens of millions of Facebook users four years ago using a personality quiz app. Kogan later passed this information on to voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica, which claimed (but now denies) that it used the data to craft political ads for President Trump’s 2016 election.

Kogan’s comments, made to BBC Radio 4’s Today program, describe an environment of permissive data-gathering and lax privacy policies. “We thought we were acting perfectly appropriately. We thought we were doing something that was really normal,” Kogan said. “My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.”

Kogan said that he was assured by Cambridge Analytica that “thousands and maybe tens of thousands of apps were doing the exact same thing” and that “this was a pretty normal use case of Facebook data.” (Kogan says he handed over information on 30 million users to Cambridge Analytica, although reports from The New York Times and others set this number at 50 million when including profiles with scant information.)

Reports blame Facebook for failing to police who accessed users’ data

Facebook says Kogan violated the company’s data policies by using the information he collected for commercial purposes. Between 2007 and 2014, the company gave developers access to its social graph — the map of users’ networks of friends, interests, and likes. But multiple reports say the social network did very little to police this sort of activity, only asking third-parties to sign minimal agreements, and only investigating misuses after they were reported to the company.

One former Facebook employee told The Wall Street Journal that “the main enforcement mechanism was call [developers] and yell at them.” An anonymous app builder who collected information from users over this period told Business Insider he remembers thinking to himself: “Fuck, people will literally give away everything for nothing.”

Industry insiders say the collection and misuse of this data was and is common. But the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which broke this weekend thanks to the testimony of a former employee, Chris Wylie, has shone a spotlight on these practices. This is at least in part because of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 US election, where it served as the data operations team for the Trump campaign. Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of parallel investigations, with an undercover reporter filming CEO Alexander Nix boasting about using bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians. Nix was suspended from the company earlier this week.

Read more: How to use Facebook without giving away your data

Whether or not the Facebook data helped swing the election for Trump is unclear, although experts are skeptical. “I think Cambridge Analytica is a better marketing company than a targeting company,” one academic studying political microtargeting told The Verge this week.

Speaking to Radio 4, Kogan echoed these sentiments, saying Cambridge Analytica had tried to sell “magic” but that its efforts “could have only hurt [Trump’s] campaign.”

“The accuracy of this data has been extremely exaggerated,” said Kogan. “In practice my best guess is that we were six times more likely to get everything wrong about a person as we were to get everything right about a person. I personally don’t think micro-targeting is an effective way to use such datasets.”

But even if microtargeting is not effective, it’s clear that these reports have brought Facebook’s reputation to a new low. The #deletefacebook campaign is in full swing, and even high profile figures like Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, have joined in. The social network is reportedly under investigation from the FTC, from New York and Massachusetts’ attorneys general, from Canada’s privacy watchdog, and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been summoned by UK MPs to answer questions before parliament. Zuckerberg has been notably absent this week, and has yet to make a public statement on the scandal. He’s expected to do so before Thursday evening.