The Cambridge Analytica scandal began with the revelation that, via one Facebook quiz that a few hundred thousand people had taken, the right-wing data firm had harvested 87 million profiles without the consent of the people involved. It’s since become much messier and more complicated as Facebook has been forced to admit it collects data on people who don’t even have a Facebook profile, and former Cambridge Analytica staffers have noted it’s unlikely that this one quiz was the sole time Cambridge Analytica collected data without consent. Now the creator of that quiz is trying to argue he’s being scapegoated for everyone else’s crimes.
Aleksandr Kogan, who created the This Is Your Digital Life quiz and thus the backdoor to access the data of people who didn’t take the quiz, attempted to defend himself on TODAY by, in essence, stating that the only difference between what he did and what anybody with a Facebook ad account did was that it was involved in the 2016 election and that harvesting data without consent is “normal business practice.”
Kogan, of course, has a vested interest in people thinking he didn’t do anything wrong, or at least that he was just the guy who got caught doing it. And he’s not entirely wrong, either. But this line of reasoning leaves a few important things out. The first is that, in actual fact, what he did was something Facebook got sued over and was ultimately forced to settle with the FTC in 2011. Mark Zuckerberg’s apology was heavily criticized for his attempts to pass off what Facebook has been legally required to do by the government for nearly a decade as bold new voluntary data protections. It doesn’t matter how many people were doing it: It shouldn’t have been allowed to happen at all.
Secondly, Facebook’s ad account and software have no shortage of legal problems before getting into the issue of consent and marketing. But the difference is that Cambridge Analytica, insofar as we know, is the only company that attempted to use this data to influence elections. Also up in the air is whether foreign actors used the data, and if so, to what degree and to what purpose. If that is indeed the case, we’ve gone well beyond unethical marketing into the territory of propaganda and informational warfare. Whether or not that’s happened is a question we’ve yet to get the answer to, but the fact that it’s even on the table at all raises grave concerns about Facebook, and everyone collecting data from it.