The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, the Scottish Referendum, elections in Nigeria, Trinidad, India, the Czech Republic, and practically anywhere in the Baltics. This is just a short list of the things former Cambridge Analytica Director of Research, Christopher Wylie, claims the company played a role in. Wylie’s descriptions of all that Cambridge Analytica was able to do with Facebook’s data highlights just how widely Facebook’s backend hangs open, allowing anyone who can scrape together an app and force it out into the world to assemble enormous data sets that can be put to a wide range of purposes.
Powered by Facebook data and notorious hedge-fund tycoon Robert Mercer’s millions, Cambridge Analytica worked on influencing politics on a global scale, according to testimony given by Wylie himself Tuesday morning to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Over the course of nearly four hours, Wylie detailed a number of Cambridge Analytica’s operations abroad and further clarified the organization’s purposefully confusing structure. Describing it as essentially a series of multinational shell companies, different in name and appearance only, which all unofficially report to either Cambridge Analytica or its parent company SCL. One of those such pseudo-companies was AggregateIQ (AIQ).
“AggregateIQ, in part because it was set up and works within the auspices of Cambridge Analytica, inherited a lot of the company’s culture of total disregard for the law…” said Wylie. “This is a company that has worked with hacked material, this is a company that will send out videos of people being murdered to intimidate voters, this is a company that goes out and tries to illicitly acquire live internet browsing data of everyone in an entire country… I think it is incredibly reasonable to say that AIQ played a very significant role in Leave” — that is, the pro-Brexit campaign — “winning.”
It felt very much like a privatised colonising operation.
Wylie said AIQ also played a role in Nigerian politics in 2015. “The videos that AIQ distributed in Nigeria with the sole intent of intimidating voters included content where people were being dismembered, where people were having their throats cut and bled to death in a ditch, they were being burned alive,” he said. “There were incredibly anti-Islamic and threatening messages portraying Muslims as violent.”
“Part of the business model of SCL is to capture a government, win an election,” Wylie explained. “You get paid for that but you don’t get a ton of money. Where you get money is then going to the minister and introducing the minister to a company and then making deals.”
“You can be like a colonial master in the country,” he continued. “It felt very much like a privatised colonising operation. You would go into a country that has underdeveloped civic institutions, you would exploit that and make money out of it. That’s how they make a lot of their money, through exploiting relationships and the fact that there’s not a lot of oversight and government accountability in a lot of these countries. ”
Though Wylie wasn’t able to speak to whether or not Facebook was explicitly aware of Cambridge Analytica’s reliance on the troves of data the company siphoned from Facebook, the existence of such files (and their obvious vulnerability) did not go unnoticed.
How readily Facebook gave up data to apps that siphoned it off stands in ironic contrast to how resistant Facebook is to reveal what it knows to users, even in the face of legal obligation. In his testimony to the House of Commons, Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a mathematician and the co-founder of PersonalData.IO, detailed his arduous, year-long journey to obtain a copy of all of the personal data Facebook had collected about him. “These [requests] were for access to personal data collected through their Custom Audiences and tracking Pixel tools,” wrote Dehaye in a March 8 email to Parliament on the matter. “My hope is that by accessing such data, I could retroactively figure out on which webpages I was tracked, who was working with whom, etc. On top, presumably, this would open the possibility for any other Facebook user to do the same.”
How readily Facebook gave up data to apps that siphoned it off stands in ironic contrast to how resistant Facebook is to reveal what it knows to users
Despite the fact that Dehaye’s request was made under the Global Data Protection Act — a new European law which allows citizens to request their own files in the name of transparency — Facebook fought tooth and nail to keep this information private. The company literally claimed it was above the law in a response email, citing the fact that it would simply be too hard to search through all of its troves of data for Dehaye’s information. Channelling Immanuel Kant, Facebook went on to say that it wouldn’t dare complete Dehaye’s request out of fear that everyone would go on to make the same request, which would be “technically impossible,” as “the required computer processing power would greatly exceed that available to the Facebook group.”
“They're saying it's too much of an effort to give me access to this data,” said Dehaye to the House of Commons, “and I find that quite intriguing because they're making essentially a technical and a business argument for why I shouldn't be given access to this data. And in the technical argument, they're in a way, shooting themselves in the foot, because what they're saying is they're so big that there is no way that they could provide me with this information, the cost would be too large.”
He continues: “They're really arguing ‘We're too big to comply with data protection law! The cost would be too high for us!’ Which is mind-boggling that they wouldn't see the direction that they are going there. Do they really want make that argument?”
Facebook doesn’t make money off your love of Facebook, it makes money by exploiting all of the data you leave behind.
Facebook knows what data it’s collecting and exactly where it is. It knows how it could hypothetically comply. The problem is that hoarding all of your personal information and selling it to highest bidder is literally its business model. Facebook doesn’t make money off your love of Facebook, it makes money by exploiting all of the data you leave behind. If Facebook suddenly had to give all of that information away to any ole regular Joe that asked for it, what would they be left with?
“They're able to use your data to target you for advertising purposes, and that's fine,” explained Wylie during testimony, “but if you want it, they can't give it to you because it's ‘too complicated.’”