Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and UCR

What happened, and why should we care?

By Tom van Leeuwen and Heleen Heijungs


What is the link between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica?

You have probably noticed the recent controversy surrounding Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and a series of alleged data breaches. But what exactly happened? What is Cambridge Analytica, and what is their relation to Facebook? And what is their relation to the 2016 American elections?

Cambridge Analytica is a British data analytics firm, which means they provide businesses and political campaigns with information on their target audiences. This data includes not only basic info like age and gender, but also details on peoples’ interests, values, and fears. Through this, the firm constructs psychological profiles of people, which it sells to businesses and politicians. Politicians and businesses can use the data to more effectively target individuals to get them to vote for a certain candidate, or buy a specific product. As put on their website, “Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.” [1]

Cambridge Analytica has assisted a number of presidential campaigns in the 2016 US elections, including that of Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. This is no secret – in fact, they proudly announce it on their website: “collaborating with 30+ ad tech partners, we used our data infrastructure to target voters who could be influenced in the most meaningful way. For example, if they cared about healthcare, targeted adverts directed them to websites explaining Trump’s views on the matter.” [2]

In 2014, a Cambridge University researcher created a personality quiz app for Facebook users. When you open an app on Facebook, you are asked to agree to certain terms. For instance, such terms often include that the app can access some data on your profile, such as your date of birth, your location, and which pages you like. But in addition to your data, an app could also request access to the data of your Facebook friends. This meant that a huge number of people had their data accessed by companies without their knowledge or consent, simply because one of their friends had decided to take a personality quiz. In the end, the researcher was able to gather data from about 50 million users, after around 300,000 people took the quiz. [3]

An app producer could use such data for academic research, or to create targeted advertisements for products. But in the case of Cambridge Analytica, the data was used for political research. The people taking the quiz were not aware that their own data, or that of their friends, was being used for political purposes. Without the consent of the people taking the quiz, the researcher passed on the gathered data to Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica, in turn, used this data to create highly targeted political advertisements based on people’s vulnerabilities.

Your ‘likes’ can be used for surprisingly accurate assessments of your personality. [5] By looking at correlations between the interests of voters and their political opinions, political candidates could alter their message to appeal to specific groups of voters, and send advertisements to individuals that addressed their fears or values. But as the Facebook users did not agree to their data being used for such purposes, Cambridge Analytica’s actions are now being called a ‘data breach’ by the media outlets that broke the story. [4]

This scandal is not the first time Facebook has come under scrutiny. In 2017, stories came out about Russian-bought ads intended to polarize American voters on controversial topics [6]. In addition, Facebook has programmed its algorithm to show you stories, pages, and images it thinks you will like – but some have argued that this filters out the stories you disagree with, creating an echo chamber in which your own views are constantly being reinforced. [7] Both these stories have also led to controversy – but not on the level of the current Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Many have raised questions about the ethical responsibilities of Facebook. On Sunday, student and head of the IT Student Helpdesk, Tom van Leeuwen, made a post in the UCR Facebook group. Here, he questioned the reliance UCR students have on Facebook as a means of staying up to date about events in their community. Below, he will explain in further detail why the Facebook scandal is relevant to us, and what we could do to protect our data.

[1] https://cambridgeanalytica.org/

[2] https://ca-political.com/casestudies

[3] https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10104712037900071


[5] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/17/facebook-cambridge-analytica-kogan-data-algorithm

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/01/facebook-ads-russia-us-election-fake-news-released-public

[7] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/vv73qj/facebooks-filter-bubble


Heleen Heijungs, Class of 2018, is a Political Science, Linguistics and Law Major from Leiden, the Netherlands.


Why does this issue matter to UCR students?

As part of the IT Helpdesk, and as a general tech enthusiast, I have always tried to keep myself up to date on Internet security and privacy. Because of this, the news that Facebook was supplying sensitive information to interested companies, and even (indirectly) influencing elections was nothing new to me [1, 2]. I was not surprised when I saw last week’s headlines on the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, and I will not be surprised when similar scandals unfold in the near future.

What I was pleasantly surprised by, however, was the amount of backlash that the scandal produced, and how it motivated so many – even those not particularly interested in technology – to make moves against Facebook. It was at that point that I decided to act on what I have been thinking about since I joined UCR: is it possible to host the incredibly active community of UCR on a platform other than Facebook? Given to the positive reception the incentive received, I will now elaborate more on UCR’s dependence on Facebook, and how we could perhaps come to a resolution.

Let me start out by saying that I think that Facebook is an amazing social platform. It is an extremely powerful tool for managing communities, planning events, interacting with members, and spreading information. There are virtually no contenders with a similar level of breadth, or a similarly sized user base. Facebook knows this, and will keep this level of quality up so that you keep coming back, because you (read: your data) are its source of income. Facebook will track you, both on and off of their website/app, to compile a profile that is as specific as possible for directed advertisements [3, 4]. It does this even if you do not have an account yet.

Many people are already aware of this, and dislike it, so when I voiced my concern on the “Welcome to UCR” page, this was a common reaction. There are UCR students on Facebook that would rather not have an account. However, they feel like they have to, since so much information about the community is being relayed through it. As such, it is almost as if the being an active UCR participant requires a Facebook account, for social and academic reasons alike. I believe that this does not have to be the case. As written in a comment by student Taylor Lee, a number of services are available that could replace Facebook as the de facto platform for social and academic interaction at UCR. I would like to focus on a couple of these options, and explain how they could help us in creating a new, secure, and more private environment.

But before that, let me explain what I would be looking for in a viable social platform. The “ultimate” platform would be a locally hosted and maintained implementation of an open-source application that uses proper encryption and provides the same level of user interactivity and possibilities as Facebook. Local hosting and maintenance gives us, UCR/RASA, control of the data on the platform, and an open-source application will have its source code publicly published, which decreases the risk of behind-the-scenes data-harvesting algorithms being present. I mentioned Moodle on the post itself, since it is an open-source and locally hosted system (plus, we are already using it).

But what it currently lacks is user-friendliness. It is primarily a learning management system, and a social platform on the side. I then turned to the links that Taylor provided, and they seemed very promising. Since almost none of these platforms run on advertisements, they are offered as subscription services, which will require financial support from either RASA or UCR, depending on the level of integration of the platform. The platforms that I found most promising were MeWe, Idka, and Padlet [5-7]. MeWe has the most Facebook-like user interaction, Idka has the most lightweight interface and better privacy due to hosting within the EU, and Padlet has the best IT administration and academic integration. However, some shortcomings are also present: MeWe has no “institution-wide” payment system (although a limited “freemium” subscription is an option), Idka can only provide picture/file and text hosting (so no events, etc.), and Padlet’s functionalities focus more on educational rather than social purposes.

Maybe the perfect platform is out there somewhere, but for now, these are the kinds of limitations that we will run into when looking to deviate from Facebook, which many consider to be the “perfect” social media platform. Yet I hope that we will find ways to cope with them, in order to move into a new stage of social interaction at UCR.

[1] https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2010/10/many-faceook-apps-found-to-be-collecting-selling-user-info/

[2] https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/02/surveillance-based-manipulation-how-facebook-or-google-could-tilt-elections/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/31/facebook-tracks-all-visitors-breaching-eu-law-report

[4] https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2018/03/facebook-scraped-call-text-message-data-for-years-from-android-phones/

[5] https://mewe.com/

[6] https://www.idka.com/en/

[7] https://padlet.com/premium/backpack


Featured image source: Getty


Tom van Leeuwen, Class of 2018, is a Life Sciences and Biomedical Sciences Major from Geldrop, the Netherlands. 

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