Three Reasons the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica Data Breach is Different

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his company’s motto, 2014. By Mike Deerkoski from San Francisco, U.S.A. (Move Fast and Break Things) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t dismiss the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal as just another data breach. It’s much worse.

Sure, it is easy to believe that your stolen personal information is already available through countless data brokers and public records. Or that what Cambridge Analytica did with your stolen data is no different than what any good online marketer already does every day.

But the personal data Cambridge Analytica misappropriated from Facebook is far more valuable than what most marketers use day-to-day. Plus, the ways they used your data to target and influence voters is far beyond what most marketing professionals would ever consider ethical.

Here are three reasons the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica data breach is different:

  1. Cambridge Analytica harvested psychographic data, not just demographic data. Your demographics like age, location, income, race, gender, etc. are already available from many legitimate sources. But Cambridge Analytica also harvested psychographic data, or data about your personality. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Are you open, agreeable, neurotic, conscientious? These are the standard “Big Five” personality measures. This personality data came from people who completed an online quiz, ostensibly created for “academic research” but then sold and repurposed without users’ permission.
  2. The data included information about your networks, not just you as an individual. Incredibly powerful information about you can be gleaned from knowing who your friends are, who they are friends with, and which friends you have in common. Using this social network information, it is easy to discern if you are an “influencer” within a group. Further, one can also tell who is a “bridge” — if your friendships span multiple, dissimilar groups. Cambridge Analytica could target voters based on their influence within social networks, not just on individual attributes.
  3. Facebook provided Cambridge Analytica a platform for publishing news, not just advertising. On Facebook, the line between content and advertising blurs. When your Facebook feed shows your friends “liking” or sharing branded content online, we usually know to recognize that post as advertising. But we are less likely to apply the same filter when a friend likes or shares a news article, even a fake news article where the agenda is not always clear. Cambridge Analytica used our inherent trust of our friends to their advantage.

What does this all add up to? An honest political campaigner, using Facebook’s standard online marketing tools, can target ads to you by demographics and your expressed, online interests. We have all seen ads like these, and while we may not like them, we can recognize and choose to ignore them.

But because of the three differences above, a dishonest political campaigner using Cambridge Analytica’s data could also target “not-so-conscientious, neurotic, extroverted” personality types who are “influencers” or “bridges” within their social networks. And instead of influencing them with a paid ad, they could send them a salacious fake news story to unwittingly repost and share.

Bottom line: that Facebook friend you hardly know who shared that fake news story? It may not be an accident of your friend’s gullibility; that friend could have been specifically targeted with a fake news story using personality and network information like that found in the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica data breach.

So, before you dismiss this leak as just another data breach, remember, you probably clicked that fake news story thinking, “That can’t possibly be true… is it?”

That was their plan all along.