An American professor’s legal claim against Cambridge Analytica to find out just how they build their profiles of voters has been given new importance by the revelations that the data analytics firm harvested private information from millions of Facebook users without their permission.
David Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, used British data protection laws last year to ask Cambridge Analytica to provide him with a rundown of what data had been gathered about him and how it was used to construct a detailed profile. Although Cambridge Analytica is backed by right-wing American billionaire Robert Mercer, it processed Americans’ data in the U.K., meaning that U.S. citizens can use British laws to find out what the company knows about them.
The case was initially described by Carroll as “experimental”, but now has the potential to open the black box of just how Cambridge Analytica used the massive trove of private information gathered from Facebook to construct their voter profiles. “Initially the claim was simply about privacy in the voting booth,” Carroll told ThinkProgress. “When we first started looking into this it was a research project but as the line continued it became much more significant.”
Carroll’s lawyers filed a claim last Friday asking Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), to hand over all the data they have on the professor, as well as how they got it. According to the claim, Cambridge Analytica and SCL “by their own description, engage in the business of ‘behavioral microtargetting’ — the collating and/or creating and then selling of data profiles which are used for…targeted advertising and political campaigning.” Cambridge Analytica is said to use up to 5,000 data points to help construct their profiles.
“We have theories as to their process but part of my initial effort is to get disclosure so we can confirm what people knew,” Carroll said. “If it was Facebook likes as the single truth for the [Cambridge Analytica] algorithms or if there were other data sets, we need to figure that out.”
In late 2016, the German publication Das Magazine first ran a piece documenting how data firms could reliably predict users behavior based on their Facebook likes, which allows political firms to “micro-target” ads for very particular subsections of likely voters. Cambridge Analytica has previously said that it “abides by all relevant data protection laws and, just as importantly, the company’s core values of integrity, respect and honesty.” However, the new revelations about how Cambridge Analytica exploited personal data from Facebook means that there is now undeniable proof that micro-targeting was used.
“Just the fact that they intended to do this — whether or not it worked — the impetus behind was to find people susceptible to propaganda and manipulation,” Carroll said. “It is truly disturbing.”
For Carroll, the important thing about his legal claim is that it sets up precedent for larger, wider suits against Cambridge Analytica. He was also extremely critical of Facebook’s role in allowing the data to be used. After initially trying to deny responsibility, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform last Friday, while on Monday Facebook’s shares plunged by 7 percent.
Carroll said that Facebook had a series of tough questions to answer about its relation with Cambridge Analytica, including why it currently employs Joseph Chancellor as a social psychologist. Chancellor previously worked with Cambridge University psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, and are believed to have harvested Facebook data which was ostensibly for academic research but was then shared with Cambridge Analytica.
“Where is the leadership?” Carroll asked. “Why is Zuckerberg not on TV this morning apologizing to 52 million people?”