A Cambridge University academic who harvested data on millions of Facebook users said he has been made a scapegoat by the social network and a UK-based political consultancy that is accused of trying to sway public opinion for Donald Trump.
Facebook has been rocked this week by a whistleblower who said that Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based political firm hired by Trump for the 2016 campaign, had improperly accessed information on 50 million Facebook users.
The company has lost $60 billion of its stock market value over the last two days over fears that its dealings with Cambridge Analytica might damage its reputation, deter advertisers and invite tougher regulation.
“We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal”
Facebook has said the data was harvested by Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology academic, who created an app on the platform that was downloaded by 270,000 people. It says he then violated its policies by passing the data to Cambridge Analytica.
“The events of the past week have been a total shell shock,” Kogan told the BBC. “My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica when... we thought we were doing something that was really normal.
“We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the terms of service.”
Alexander Nix, the head of Cambridge Analytica who was suspended on Tuesday, said in a secretly recorded video that his company had played a decisive role in Trump’s election victory.
But Kogan said the accuracy of the dataset had been “exaggerated” by Cambridge Analytica, and that the information was more likely to hurt Trump’s campaign.
FACTS ABOUT CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA
WHAT DO THEY DO?
Cambridge Analytica markets itself as providing consumer research targeted advertising and other data-related services to both political and corporate clients.
It does not list its corporate clients but on its website describes them as including a daily newspaper that wanted to know more about its subscribers, a women’s clothing brand that sought research on its customers and a U.S. auto insurer interested in marketing itself.
Britain’s Channel 4 News reported on Monday, based on secretly recorded video, that Cambridge Analytica secretly stage-managed Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns in the hotly contested 2013 and 2017 elections. Cambridge Analytica denied the report.
The company’s website lists five office locations in New York, Washington, London, Brazil and Malaysia.
WHEN DID IT FIRST GET ATTENTION?
After Trump won the White House in 2016, in part with the firm’s help, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix went to more clients to pitch his services, the Times reported last year. The company boasted it could develop psychological profiles of consumers and voters which was a “secret sauce” it used to sway them more effectively than traditional advertising could.
Rival consultants and campaign aides, though, expressed doubts about the company’s claims. Brad Parscale, who ran Trump’s digital operations in 2016, said the campaign did not use Cambridge Analytica’s data, relying instead on voter data from a Republican National Committee operation.
WHAT IS IT ACCUSED OF?
Cambridge Analytica beginning in 2014 obtained data on 50 million Facebook users via means that deceived both the users and Facebook, the New York Times and London’s Observer reported on Saturday.
The data was harvested by an application developed by a British academic, Aleksandr Kogan, the newspapers said. Some 270,000 people downloaded the application and logged in with their Facebook credentials, according to Facebook. The application gathered their data and data about their friends, and then Kogan passed the data to Cambridge Analytica, according to both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
Cambridge Analytica said on Saturday that it did not initially know Kogan violated Facebook’s terms, and that it deleted the data once it found out in 2015. Kogan could not be reached for comment.
The data, though, was not deleted, the two newspapers reported on Saturday. Cambridge Analytica said that the allegation was not true. Facebook said it was investigating to verify the accuracy of the claim.