Cambridge Analytica: Breaking into the Private Sphere

Gillian Xie

As the internet has rapidly risen in its importance in our day to day lives, the presence of social media has also become ever more significant. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is check your phone: Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat. But no one can quite deny the overwhelming prominence of Facebook, the largest social media network in the world with almost 2.2 billion active users as of January 2018 [1].

Like all other social networks, Facebook is required to have a strict privacy policy that ensures all our personal information remains private. And while most of us were never quite convinced by such a statement, as we scrolled through screeds of perfectly targeted ads, the reality of the privacy policy was much grimmer than we had expected. Facebook was recently discovered to have submitted data from over 50 million profiles to Cambridge Analytica in order to influence the 2016 US elections.

Cambridge Analytica is a private political consulting firm which focuses on the strategic use of data mining and data analysis and worked with Donald Trump during the 2016 US elections. The firm, which originated in the United Kingdom as Strategic Communications Laboratories Group (SCL Group), has long since marketed itself as an expert on psychological warfare which if true, would lead to unsettling concerns about its role in the US elections. However, despite accusations, Cambridge Analytica claims that it did not make use of any of the 50 million Facebook profiles during the electoral process [2].

This awareness has sparked the new hashtag #DeleteFacebook to spread almost virally across the globe through multiple social media platforms, and ironically, through Facebook itself. Articles and guides on how to delete your account are on the rise, while the number of Facebook profiles still active steadily decrease. As users delete their Facebook accounts, it has been discovered that the social network site gathers information such as call and text logs, which questions exactly how private any ‘private’ calls or messages can be. Even one co-founder of WhatsApp (which was bought by Facebook in 2014) Brain Action, has joined in on this hashtag. Although he left the company in 2017, the incident has caused Facebook’s market share to drop by more than 9% over the course of two days, a loss of almost $50 billion of the company’s overall value [3].

Regardless of what Cambridge Analytica did with the information it was provided, the fact that the private company managed to obtain the information, and the fact that Facebook simply seemed to let it happen still stands. While Facebook had verified this ‘leak’ back in 2015, it was only until recently when a former member of Cambridge Analytica Christopher Wylie came forward, that the public really became aware of the dangers to their privacy. As the internet becomes ever more widespread and the amount of data we keep on paper gets transferred over to the world wide web, it not only makes the data easier for us to access but also for corporations including Facebook, to use such data for other means.

The concern for the actions of Cambridge Analytica has prompted even further investigation into the firm’s present and past actions as well as the actions of its parent company SCL Group. Over the years many political events, both big and small have occurred, many of which were controversial, such as Brexit and the US elections, and Cambridge Analytica seems to find itself at the heart of it all. Large firms are beginning to have a wider impact not just nationally, but globally as well. Cambridge Analytica has been found to have ties to not just major Western powers, but also countries such as Kenya and Nigeria.

In 2015, SCL Group had been hired to essentially ensure that the president of Nigeria at the time, Goodluck Jonathan, remained president. Despite the dangers that the team members faced, the company continued to push them to work with illegally obtained information, supposedly obtained through hacking, all the while ‘ensuring’ their safety. It became a testament to how far Western countries, despite being the role models of democracy, were willing to go in order to sabotage the democratic practices of other states [4].

It is becoming increasingly clear that privacy is a concept that is becoming more and more difficult to grasp. This incident is only one example of various breaches into the private sphere. As publicly shared information begins to circulate across the globe, so does privately shared information. As the investigation on Cambridge Analytica continues, we must consider the possibility that with the arrival of the internet the line separates the public and private has become significantly blurred.

Gillian Xie is a freshman studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. She is the Blogger for Defense Affairs in East Asia.

Works Cited

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[1] Statistica. 2018. Most famous social network sites worldwide as of January 2018, ranked by number of active users (in millions). January. Accessed March 22, 2018.

[2] Prokop, Andrew. 2018. Cambridge Analytica and its many scandals, explained. 21 March. Accessed March 22, 2018.

[3] Solon, Olivia. 2018. WhatsApp co-founder joins call to #DeleteFacebook as fallout intensifies. 21 March. Accessed March 24, 2018.

[4] BBC News. 2018. Cambridge Analytica: The data firm's global influence. 22 March. Accessed March 25, 2018.