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Facebook scandal goes beyond Cambridge Analytica

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP

With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg poised to appear before Congress on Tuesday to be heard on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, examples of companies exploiting their access to social media users’ private data are rife.

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Behind the scenes, Facebook has been busy blocking the pages of entities linked to the British based Cambridge Analytica (CA) and other firms that, like CA, have made exploiting personal data, collected in apparent violation of Facebook’s own rules, their stock-in-trade.

On Sunday, the social network suspended CubeYou’s account after the firm had harvested millions of users' personal data through ostensibly innocuous personality quizzes. Last Friday, Facebook blocked Aggregate IQ’s page after the Canadian outfit was accused of links to Cambridge Analytica and of having worked for the Leave camp in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum by means of data gleaned from the social media giant.

In fact, this pair represents only a tiny fraction of the digital ecosystem that has built up around the exploiting of information Facebook users share online, as described in detail by Austria’s Cracked Labs Institute for Critical Digital Culture, in a June 2017 study. Alongside the case of Harris Media, another Big Data specialist with political intentions, they illustrate excesses in the commerce of personal data.

Aggregate IQ (AIQ), for its part, influenced the result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016. Or at least, that is what the Canadian firm, which specialised in the political exploitation of Facebook data, asserted on its website until March 22 of this year. Once news media began looking into AIQ’s ties to Cambridge Analytica, the published claim disappeared overnight.

The Canadian firm is suspected of having pocketed more than €4 million from assorted pro-Brexit groups for using Facebook data to identify voters whose decision was susceptible to influence. That work resembles the work Cambridge Analytica is suspected of having done on behalf of Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign.

It would be hardly surprising if AIQ is indeed merely a façade for Cambridge Analytica in Canada, as alleged. Christopher Wylie, the former CA employee who brought the firm’s activities to light, says he personally participated in AIQ’s creation. The Canadian firm has denied any contractual link with Cambridge Analytica. But Wylie told The Guardian: “Among internal CA staff AIQ was referred to as ‘our Canadian office’. They were treated as a department within the company.”

CubeYou, too, is no longer welcome on Facebook. And yet the firm does what dozens more do in gathering personal data on the social network and selling them to advertisers.

But US television network CNBC caught CubeYou red-handed using the same subterfuge as Cambridge Analytica to bolster its database illegally. The company had been using quizzes on Facebook – tests that were presented as having been developed in association with Cambridge University researchers – to amass precious insight into the profiles of tens of millions of Facebook users. The harvested knowledge was officially meant to serve academic research. But in fact, CubeYou sold the data on to so-called commercial partners.

The technique, according to CNBC, allowed the firm to establish a profile of 45 million Facebook users, including information on age, employment, education, interests and the brands they followed on social media, as well as what messages they “liked” and the comments they posted on the site.

Harris Media, for its part, is still present on Facebook and continues to extol the merits of its "Big Data" approach to political campaigning, an approach very similar to Cambridge Analytica’s. But for some NGOs, the American firm is hardly different from its British competitor.

A Privacy International investigation in December 2017 accused Harris Media of influencing the Kenyan presidential election in favour of the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, by creating online video content discrediting his challenger, opposition leader Raila Odinga. “We thought it would lead us to Cambridge Analytica, because of the similarities. But it actually led us to Harris Media,” Lucy Purdon, Policy Officer for Privacy International, told FRANCE 24.

Harris Media, like Cambridge Analytica, is sitting on a gold mine of data culled from social networks regarding millions of users. The information allows them to create content – videos, websites, Facebook pages – very precisely adapted to targeted profiles. Beyond Kenya’s Kenyatta, Harris Media, which is closely associated with US hardline conservatives, pressed its know-how into service for the National Front in France, Germany’s populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a long list of American conservatives, including Trump.

In 2014, Bloomberg called Vincent Harris, who founded the firm, “the man who invented the Republican internet”. Harris is keen on high-impact operations online. The Harris Media videos in Kenya suggested bloody racial violence could ensue should the opposition gain power. In Germany, the firm was responsible for campaign videos warning against the country’s supposedly exploding Islamisation. The videos also had French versions, intended to disparage Emmanuel Macron during his presidential run.

The main difference between Cambridge Analytica and Harris Media is that it is unknown how many internet users Harris Media kept records on and to what extent it compiled data on them. Why? For one, there hasn’t been a whistleblower like there was in the case of Cambridge Analytica. And, unlike the British firm, Harris Media is based in a jurisdiction that is less regulated on this issue. “US laws on data protection and privacy do not protect users as much as in Europe,” says Privacy International’s Purdon.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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