A Guardian headline today blares: “Ted Cruz using firm that harvested data on millions of unwitting Facebook users.” Interesting! But you sure have to read a long way into the story to figure out what the real problem is. Is it the fact that Cambridge Analytica—the firm Cruz is using—compiled “psychographic profiles” of Facebook users? Nah. Call it what you will, but that’s practically old hat these days. Is it that fact that Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, founder of CA’s parent, paid users of Mechanical Turk a dollar to fill out a questionnaire and turn over their Facebook profiles? No again. If people want to sell their profiles for a dollar, they can do it. So what’s the problem?
Crucially, Kogan also captured the same data for each person’s unwitting friends. For every individual recruited on MTurk, he harvested information about their friends, meaning the dataset ballooned significantly in size. Research shows that in 2014, Facebook users had an average of around 340 friends.
….By summer 2014, Kogan’s company had created an expansive and powerful dataset. His business partner boasted on LinkedIn that their private outfit, Global Science Research (GSR), “owns a massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States — for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles”.
Consumer research firms do this kind of stuff routinely, so there’s not really any big news here. And if there’s anyone at fault, it’s our old friend Facebook. Once again, they’re allowing people to take advantage of the fact that Facebook’s default settings open users up to this kind of harvesting. Very few people ever bother to change their defaults, and Facebook knows it.
As for Cruz, there are plenty of places to get information like this. I don’t know if CA is one of the best or not. But every serious campaign does this kind of microtargeting. As Cruz explained last month, he’s a big admirer of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign strategy—which just goes to show that there’s at least one thing that Cruz and Obama agree about.
Bottom line: I don’t think Cruz really did anything wrong here. Facebook probably did. Big surprise.