On Friday, Facebook announced that it had suspended Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) and its political data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, for violating its Terms of Service, by collecting and sharing the personal information of up to 50 million users without their consent. The incident is demonstrative of ways that Facebook’s core business model — delivering individualized ads to users — can be exploited, while raising uncomfortable questions about how such data might have been used to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
Cambridge Analytica is owned in part by hedge fund billionaire Richard Mercer, and first aided Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2015, before helping the Trump campaign in 2016. It promised to target voters’ “unconscious psychological biases,” by using massive amounts of data develop personality profiles, which could then be used to create extremely specific ads. According to Vox, the Trump campaign brought Cambridge Analytica on in June 2016 to help with its digital operations, headed up by Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The campaign later named Steve Bannon — a former vice presidents of Cambridge Analytica — as campaign manager. Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie recently passed information to The Observer and described the company’s work as a “grossly unethical experiment,” and said that they exploited Facebook to harvest the personal information of millions of people and “built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.”
A CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA EMPLOYEE DESCRIBED THE COMPANY’S WORK AS A “GROSSLY UNETHICAL EXPERIMENT”
The suspension of the two companies came a day before a pair of reports in the The New York Times and The Observer about how Cambridge Analytica obtained and used the personal information of 50 million users to design voter profiles to target political advertising during the 2016 election. Facebook confirmed that the data came from University of Cambridge psychology professor Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, who created an app called “thisisyourdigitallife,” in 2015, which 270,000 people downloaded. The app gave Kogan permission to access information from the users’ accounts, as well as information about their friends.