Cambridge Analytica was nothing if not consistent. After nearly two months of scandal, the Trump campaign’s onetime data analytics firm died as it lived: denying it ever did anything wrong and excoriating the journalists who reported about the ways in which it misused data. Its timely death on Wednesday — which arrived on the second day of the F8 developer conference — illustrated something Facebook knew all too well: data privacy matters to people, and acting recklessly with it could kill you.
The company had been consumed by controversy amid revelations that it obtained data on up to 87 million Facebook users through a personality quiz app called thisisyourdigitallife created by a University of Cambridge researcher named Aleksandr Kogan. The scandal led to government hearings in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress. Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, resigned after further reporting caught him discussing how to entrap politicians on behalf of clients.
No one accused Kogan of obtaining his data illegally, or even against Facebook’s terms of service. But it was against Facebook’s terms to hand that data to another firm. And the fact that Facebook enabled users to give away their friends’ data as well meant that the data leak swept up millions of unwitting users. (Facebook later removed that feature from its developer platform.)
When the scandal broke, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica both saw the moment as an occasion to point fingers at Aleksandr Kogan. “In 2014, we contracted a company led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally-renowned institution to undertake a large scale research project in the United States,” Cambridge Analytica said in the scandal’s immediate aftermath. “This company, Global Science Research, was contractually committed by us to only obtain data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act and to seek the informed consent of each respondent.” (Kogan had collected the data through a company he started named Global Science Research.)
Facebook struck a similar tone. “Mark, Sheryl [Sandberg] and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue,” Facebook told The Daily Beast. “The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”
Both companies initially presented themselves as the victim. But amid mounting public pressure, lawmakers in the United States and the United Kingdom made it clear they wouldn’t let either get away with it. They demanded to know why Facebook hadn’t done more to ensure that Cambridge Analytica deleted the improperly obtained data. And they pressed Cambridge Analytica on how it planned to use that data in political campaigns.
At that critical moment, Facebook changed its tune completely. After five days of silence, Zuckerberg gave a round of interviews in which he apologized for Facebook’s neglect. “We let the community down, and I feel really bad, and I’m sorry about that,” he said.
Facebook went on to announce a full investigation of other apps that gained access to large amounts of information using methods similar to Kogan’s. (The investigation is still ongoing, and it’s expected to turn up multiple Cambridge Analytica-scale data leaks.) It promised to ban any developer that did not agree to an audit. It began shutting down wide swaths of its developer platform to prevent future abuses, and it began promoting a tool that shows users which apps they have connected to their accounts, with apps losing access to data from anyone who hasn’t used the app in 30 days.
Contrast that with what Cambridge Analytica said yesterday when announcing its shutdown: “Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations and, despite the Company’s efforts to correct the record, has been vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas.”
Perhaps the company wouldn’t have survived even if it had apologized for improperly obtaining data — that Channel 4 sting was a doozy — but its obstinate response likely helped send the company to an early grave.
Of course, it’s fair to wonder whether the team behind Cambridge Analytica is actually done. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that several of its key players, including former CEO Nix, had begun working on a new company named Emerdata. It is reportedly housed at the same New York address as Cambridge Analytica.
But even if the Cambridge Analytica crew rides again, for the moment they’re riding on a dead horse. A company that grew famous by overpromising the value of its data is no more, tripped up once and for all by a simple unwillingness to apologize. No one at Cambridge Analytica was sorry for what the company did, and few will be sorry to see it go.