The data research team that worked with Donald Trump’s election team harvested more than 50 million Facebook accounts to build an algorithm capable of predicting choices at the ballot box, according to a whistleblower.
Whistleblower Christopher Whylie explained to The Observer how research firm Cambridge Analytica used personal information taken without authorization to build an algorithm that could profile individual voters and serve them personalized political advertisements.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on,” Whylie, who worked on obtaining the data, told The Observer on March 17.
The initiative, which commenced in 2014, had secured information of more than 50 million Facebook users by the end of 2015, according to documents seen by The Observer, with The New York Times reporting that copies of the data can still be found online.
The information was then handed over to The Trump Campaign when it hired Cambridge Analytica in June 2016 and later transferred to digital marketing firm Giles-Parscale, which used it to run various targeted advertising campaigns.
The data was collected through a Facebook-based application called thisisyourdigitallife, wherein hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use – not for voter profiling and targetted advertising.
“Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app. In so doing, they gave their consent for [developer] Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends,” explained Facebook.
Facebook has since suspended Cambridge Analytica for violating its policies surrounding data collection and retention, following an investigation. It noted, however, that it was unable to determine whether the data was used in conjunction with election ad campaigns.
Cambridge Analytica also released a statement, claiming that it deleted all of its data after learning that Global Science Research does not comply with Facebook’s terms of service, adding that it’s working with the social behemoth to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.
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