Big Data Ethics: The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Affair

This is supposedly the big ethics story of the past ten days. There are ethics elements involved, but the main ethics stories are how the facts are being spun to try to make this yet another example of sinister doings by the Trump campaign, and how incredibly incompetent and naive social media users are.

In 2016, the Trump presidential campaign paid about $6 million to a firm called Cambridge Analytica to put together a voter database with profiles to allow targeted messaging. Global Science Research was hired by the firm, and reportedly paid Facebook to post a personality quiz and an app that 270,000 Facebook users ultimately consented to. The app allowed the firm to harvest personal likes, attitudes and preferences from 50 million Americans through access to the consenting users Facebook friends. Originally we were told that Cambridge Analytica had used all of that data to target voters during the 2016 presidential election, but that claim seems increasingly dubious. The Trump campaign ended its relationship with the firm well before the election.

Facebook claims it was lied to, and has now banned the firm, which could be fairly classified as misdirection. Facebook, as it has done before on its own, permitted its platform to be used to gather psychological profiles on its users without full disclosure regarding what the data would be used for.  Now Facebook stock is plunging in the U.S., Facebook advertisers are leaving, some users are leaving too, and Congress wants hearings.

What’s going on here?

  • If, in fact, Facebook was deceived into allowing the quiz, that was unethical. Gathering data through such means is not illegal, however, and the ethics of Big Data gathering and analytics are murky at best. The legal profession, for example, has no clear regulation of it or guidance from bar associations.

Facebook did not inform users whose data had been harvested, and that could violate laws in Britain and some  states.

  • The tenor of much of the news reporting and punditry, however, has been  pure fear-mongering and hyperbole. That Cambridge Analytica was evil is presumed, I gather, from the fact that Steve Bannon was one of the founders. The New York Times in various articles described the data gathering as an invasion of “private information,” which is an inflammatory and misleading description, and described “misuse” of the information, as if such use isn’t routine in 21st Century commercial marketing. Here’s the Times, for example,

“The researcher hired by Cambridge Analytica, Alexandr Kogan, told Facebook and his app’s users that he was collecting information for academic purposes, not for a political data firm owned by a wealthy conservative. Facebook did nothing to verify how the information was being used.”

Ah…if it’s for a firm owned by a wealthy conservative, that makes the data gathering sinister, I guess.

  • It is unethical not to let people know why their preferences are being requested, and how they might be used, except that a strong argument could be raised that anyone who didn’t know they were creating a Big Data-base for Facebook is too naive to be allowed on the web without a leash.  Facebook isn’t free: providing data is one of the ways users pay for it. There has certainly been plenty of publicity about this, and it’s not just Facebook. Google, Amazon, Twitter: this is what these companies do.

If it were possible to feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg (it isn’t) one could conclude that the massive backlash he is receiving is contrived and unfair.

  • The episode is also being called a “breach,” as if there was hacking, or information was stolen.

There was no “breach.”

  • As tensions rose, Zuckerberg published a post promising to better control access to user data. “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” he wrote. “I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

He knew exactly what happened. Facebook made money by selling access to Facebook user data. People just didn’t like who his company sold it to this time.

  • I hate it when people say, “This is nothing new” —it’s a rationalization that I need to add to the list—but this is nothing new.  Facebook has been knocked for misusing user data since its earliest days, first in 2006, when users objected that the service’s news feed was making public information that the users had–naively— intended to keep private.  In 2009, Facebook began making users’ posts public by default. That triggered an investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and, ultimately, a consent decree.

In 2014, Facebook disclosed that it had used its participants as guinea pigs in an internal psychology experiment. If you stuck around as a Facebook user after that, it was your own fault.

  • That’s how Facebook regarded it too. In 2008, Zuckerberg told a conference that each year people would share twice as much information about themselves as they had the year before. Public concern about privacy were eroding, Zuckerberg said in 2010. “That social norm,” he added, “is just something that has evolved over time.”

After the revelations in 2014 that resulted in Facebook promising to be more careful with user data, the company created an “Anonymous Login” tool  so that Facebook users could log into third-party services without making all of their data available to developers. It  was never executed. Facebook killed the project.

  • Facebook happily helped the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012 use its data to put together a sophisticated voter database that was widely praised and admired. That wasn’t a scandal, in part because the news media didn’t explain what happened, mostly because nobody was horrified that Obama won two elections and or was looking for excuses and people to blame. Indeed, Romney’s campaign was roundly mocked for its tech incompetence. Once the ridiculous theory was launched that Facebook helped Trump “steal” the election by selling ads including fake news (Did you know that the Pope endorsed Trump?) that only mouth-breathing cretins would allow to change their votes, Facebook became part of the Trump-Demonizing narrative.

Early in the reporting of the story, for example, Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed writer Will Bunch wrote in part…

“In 2016, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign paid roughly $6 million to a firm founded by a hedge-fund billionaire supporter that used 21st-century technology, subterfuge and out-and-out fraud to essentially steal the thoughts of 50 million Americans — quite possibly you, or your friends and neighbors — to launch a psy-ops campaign against voters, to put Trump in the White House. In other words, multiply Watergate to at least the 10th power.”

That’s right: a campaign using information about Facebook users that the users had knowingly handed over to Facebook and the world, and which Facebook had been gathering and selling for years was the equivalent of a burglary, bribery and an executive branch cover-up… because Republicans did it, not Obama.

“…The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein said it best: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Everything has a cost. If you forgot that, or refused to see it in your relationship with Facebook, or believe any of these things, sorry, you are a fool. So the politicians and pundits who are working to soak your outrage for their own ideological purposes are gulling you. But of course you knew. You just didn’t care . . . until you cared. Until, that is, you decided this was a convenient way of explaining away the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

You’re so invested in the idea that Trump stole the election, you are willing to believe anything other than that your candidate lost because she made a lousy argument and ran a lousy campaign and didn’t know how to run a race that would put her over the top in the Electoral College — which is how you prevail in a presidential election and has been for 220-plus years.

The rage and anger against Facebook over the past week provide just the latest examples of the self-infantilization and flight from responsibility on the part of the American people and the refusal of Trump haters and American liberals to accept the results of 2016.

Honestly, it’s time to stop being fools and start owning up to our role in all this.”


  •  I find it difficult to believe that the public and the media is that foolish. How can anyone be shocked that social media data is being packaged, sold, sliced and diced and used by other companies as marketing. Netflix suggests it “Picks for Jack,” based on which movies I watch or stop watching. Google bases the ads you see when you use the search engine on what you write about in your gmail messages. Amazon suggests products and books for you. Not only is all of this free data you are handing over voluntarily given (do you read your user agreements? You don’t? Whose fault is that?), but using it is legal, and companies can, and do, sell it to anyone they choose to. Even Russians.

If this manufactured scandal causes the public to think about what happens to all the information it happily and apparently clueless sends into cyberspace, if we begin debating ethics standards for the use of Big Data and analytics, if the power of tech giants like Facebook and Google to manipulate (or try to) our culture and politics according to their own agendas is regulated and limited in the interests of free speech and democracy, some good can come out of this.

The ethics verdicts on the players in this over-heated drama:

Alexandr Kogan: Misled Facebook users by not making it clear what he was doing. Unethical.

Cambridge Analytica: Allegedly promised Facebook it would delete its database, and did not. Unethical.

The Trump and Obama campaigns: Used, paid for, and benefited from Big Data analytics based on social media information voluntarily revealed by Facebook users. Ethical.

Facebook: Used and profited from user information. Ethical. Claimed it cares about protecting user information, and wasn’t profiting from it. Unethical.

Pundits, journalists and Democrats who framed the story as a Trump campaign scandal: Unethical. (But what else is new?)

Facebook users who were genuinely shocked to learn their social media data wasn’t private: Unethical, as in incompetent, irresponsible, lazy and too stupid for words.


8 thoughts on “Big Data Ethics: The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Affair

  1. I don’t know how many of my friends have admonished me to “get on” FaceBook; silly me.

    As I go to my MSN home page & hotmail account this morning, I see they’re both convinced that I desire to view all manner of commodes based on yesterday’s one search, a search my lovely and long-suffering wife implored me to make…hmmmm!

    A while back I was looking for a stock photo of a steaming pile of shit to supply a visual for one of my…um…creative writing endeavors.

    Guess what my “ad choices” thought might be of interest?

  2. Why should people have any expectation of privacy when dealing with corporations, whose business models are based on the collection and distribution of data, especially in an age where it’s common knowledge that our own government is doing exactly the same thing?

    Does anyone really believe that checking a box on a web page suddenly brings down a curtain of privacy over our online affairs? Knowing and accepting that anything you do may be used for something other than the intended purpose is an essential awareness in today’s world. For that matter, we get coupons in the USPS mail from our grocery store that just happen to be for items we regularly purchase even though we don’t use their club card or other means of overt data mining. Maybe that’s why the POS machine says “card recognized…”

    But I digress. It is amusing and fun to watch when one party points its finger at something as a perceived injustice and has a temper tantrum but is equally guilty of the same offense under a different administration.

    As far as Robert Heinlein is concerned, he was one of the most astute and forward-thinking writers in modern history, whose works should be required reading everywhere.

    • We are tired of being lied to, in a very obvious way. The Establishment GOP are as guilty as the progressives, too.

      “Give us the House, and we will do something” X
      “Now give us the Senate, and we will do something” X
      “We have Congress, give us the White House…” X

      Now they gave the Democrats every little thing they wanted in a spending bill! Smoking gun evidence of the new Aristocracy. These guys make money on what would be insider trading, enriching their family, friends, and political allies in way that are illegal (not to mention, unethical) for the common American.

      If the 2018 blue wave happens, it will be the GOP’s fault.

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