Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign must love dumb friends. In addition to releasing an app that rewards people for turning over their friends’ personal information, the campaign is leaning on a data analytics company that has paid people $1 for access to their Facebook data and their friends’ data.
Cambridge Analytica builds “psychographic profiles” for the campaign using Facebook data. This is where things get weird: Even if you didn’t agree to give your data to the company, it still might have access to it.
The Guardian reports that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories, has gathered Facebook data by paying people around $1 for it on Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s marketplace for buying and selling “human intelligence.” For a buck, Mechanical Turk users took personality questionnaires that allowed access to their Facebook profiles.
Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at Cambridge University, told The Guardian how the Mechanical Turk gambit didn’t limit the data collection to the people who sold out for a dollar. Anyone who happened to be Facebook friends with one of Mechanical Turk’s cheapo mercenaries was fair game:
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.
Cruz has said his campaign is using the “Obama model” for outreach, and he’s right. Using data analytics to target voters is de rigueur for any serious candidate.
Cruz isn’t even the only candidate using Cambridge Analytica—Ben Carson is also involved with the company, to a lesser extent. (The Cruz campaign is working so closely with Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company funded by Cruz’s billionaire donor Robert Mercer, that the firm has sent staffers to Cruz’s Houston headquarters.)
I wouldn’t be surprised if Democratic candidates had similar data analytics-based voter profiling. This isn’t a case where Cruz is alone on the other side of an ethical line. What it is: A reminder that data brokerage is an unregulated, thirsty market where companies succeed by finding and loopholes or tricks to capturing more of your personal data.
Image via AP