"I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS. People just submitted it. They trust me. Dumb fucks" – Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, 2004.
14 years since that infamous statement, Facebook’s founder finds himself in a spot of bother, following accusations of failure to protect users’ private data.
The data breach scandal comes against the backdrop of revelations that the British consulting firm – Cambridge Analytica (CA) – obtained illegal access to private data for close to 50 million Facebook users.
#CA’s biggest crime
The firm is accused of harvesting data of up to 50 million Facebook users without their consent in their bid to help Donald Trump win the US election in November 2016.
They were found to have played similar roles in several countries including Italy, India, UK, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Mexico, Columbia, Brazil, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Kenya.
In the summer of 2014, CA hired Aleksandr Kogan – a Soviet-born American researcher – to gather basic profile information of Facebook users along with what they chose to "like".
About 270,000 Facebook users, most of whom were paid a small amount, downloaded Kogan’s app – "Thisisyourdigitallife" – which took the form of a personality survey.
Kogan collected data not just on the 270,000, but on their Facebook friends as well – if their privacy settings allowed it. Their final haul was no less a whopping 50 million users.
The mined data was then saved into a private database instead of immediately deleting it (as had been agreed with Facebook) before being passed on to CA.
CA eventually used this information to make 30 million "psychographic" profiles about the US electorate.
Results of the analysis were used to sway, manipulate and/or influence electorate voting patterns in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Kogan’s app was subsequently removed in 2015 following the initial discovery of the breach, but the damage had already been done.
Using the collected data, CA was able to collate the electorate’s psychological attributes for profiling. They included personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles.
The data was then used to build algorithms that analyze personality traits linked to voting behavior, identify possible swing voters and implement hyper-targeted messaging. This was to be executed via online platforms such as Facebook and other online services.
CA were smart in their modus operandi. They didn’t start with practices that might be labeled "political", but with consumer data and psychological profiles.
They had amassed, on average, 5,000 data points about the behavioral trends of American citizens from health concerns to car ownership, according to ft.com.
Steve Bannon, a founding board member at CA, was eventually appointed Donald Trump's senior counselor and chief strategist in the Trump administration.
Cambridge Analytica’s overall influence on the final election outcome may remain contentious, but the fact that Donald Trump spent a significantly very little money speaks volumes about the effectiveness of personality-based advertising.
#The foray into Kenya
There were concerns raised by political commentators, about how Kenyans’ personal data was accessed by political parties or even government institutions.
SMS texts during the campaign season appeared to suggest that individuals’ voter registration information, social media data, and telephone numbers had been independently linked. How this was done remains unclear.
"We rebranded the entire party twice, wrote the manifesto, did research, analysis and messaging.
I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate," said Mark Turnbull, a director at CA, of his firm’s work for Jubilee, Uhuru Kenyatta’s political affiliate.
On more than two occasions, Cambridge Analytica conducted surveys of 50,000 people to ascertain the Kenyan electorate’s expectations.
Kenyatta's political romance with CA had started in 2013, before upping the ante in the 2017 election.
So, yeah. Those articulate speeches that made Uhuru Kenyatta sound like the coolest president on the continent were a result of the former’s long-term involvement with CA.
#The dirty tricks
An undercover investigation by Channel 4 News revealed a much darker range of services offered by CA. Revelations were made, of how honey traps, spies, and fake news had been used to help clients.
Turnbull, at some point, admitted to using proxy organizations, such as charities or activist groups, to discreetly funnel negative material about other candidates onto social media.
There were reports about the use of shadowy online propaganda tools, the most prominent of them being the "Defeat Crooked Hillary" ads.
Others included the use of bribes, former spies, and Ukrainian sex workers to entrap politicians around the world.
In other countries, CA worked with former spies from Britain and Israel to look for what they called “political dirt”. The company has since denied the allegations.
#Cambridge Analytica’s other projects
Prior to this bombshell, and riding on the crest of their earlier claims to have eased Trump’s journey to the US top office, CA was said to be in talks with a large, unnamed large opposition party in India – believed to be the Congress Party – for the upcoming general elections in 2019.
In an August 2017 pitch to the political party, the firm is said to have presented a data-driven blueprint to target voters on social media, analyzing online user behavior and "connecting the dots" across different citizen databases.
#Did facebook violate any rules?
One of the prerequisites prompts during a facebook account opening is the data and cookie use policy. In part, it reads thus;
"Subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License).
This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it".
There’s the catch. The terms are not explicit about sharing of user data with third parties. Individual countries, however, could be having different laws. Whether these will affect Facebook, in the long run, remains to be seen
#Zuckerberg’s official response
"I started Facebook, and at the end of the day I'm responsible for what happens on our platform," cooed Zuckerberg, finally owning up and appearing remorseful over how everything had panned out.
"I'm serious about doing what it takes to protect our community", he went on. He said Facebook would also be restricting developers' data access even further to prevent other kinds of abuse".
#Is it about time we quit facebook?
It depends on one’s motive for being there in the first place. Facebook has fostered the growth of e-commerce and made people harness Zuckerberg’s much-touted connectedness.
Following the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal, there were growing campaigns to quit facebook under the hashtag #deletefacebook.
Elon Musk, the Tesla founder and entrepreneur was one of the first high profile figures to jump onto the #deletefacebook bandwagon, deleting facebook pages for two of his companies – Tesla and Space X.
The fad never caught on, initially, but Facebook’s stock market value would eventually take a 5% tumble.
Zuckerberg’s initial purpose of creating the platform had been to "create open information and connectedness". Facebook has done this, and so much more.
#Are we safe online, anymore?
Zuckerberg seems to suggest so. But you wouldn’t want to bet on this. Forget the much-hyped end-to-end encryption and several security layer levels and all that complex jargon that is supposed to make our private data appear walled.
A mere change of privacy settings may give you temporary reprieve, but your data could only be an algorithm away from laying you bare.
You just might have to exercise caution on how much of your data is out there. Social media remains the one avenue best placed to craft what Robert Sebunya calls a "Virtual Venn Diagram" of one’s personality.
It’s the one place where one will concurrently play saint on their wall while being Lucifer’s darling in their private inbox.
Your history remains holed up in Zuckerberg's servers unless he chooses to expunge it without passing it on to anyone else. He retains the key to your privacy. You remain at his mercy.
Whether you change your name from Buladina Nakanjako to Bootylicious Pretty Kitty Cat and 1,000 other aliases, your profile id (among others) remains the same.
You can still be smoked out, anytime.