Cambridge Analytica Quiz Designer Apologizes For Data Mining Role

WASHINGTON (CN) – The designer of the online quiz at the center of the Cambridge Analytica data use scandal apologized on Tuesday for his role in the story, saying he believed the way his team used the app to gather information on Facebook users and their friends was nothing unusual.

“We thought collecting data like we did was completely normal, accepted and that people whose data was being collected and transferred knew that it was regularly happening,” Dr. Aleksandr Kogan told senators on Tuesday afternoon.

Kogan was one of three experts who testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security on Tuesday in the latest in a string of congressional hearings on Facebook’s handling of the trove of data it collects from its users.

Kogan, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University, was the designer of a Facebook personality quiz that allowed Cambridge Analytica to access the data of tens of millions of Facebook users, including people who never took the survey. Cambridge Analytica used the data to develop profiles of people to whom it then targeted political ads as part of its work for the Trump campaign.

While his quiz and Cambridge Analytica have drawn much scrutiny in recent months from politicians, Kogan said it is “science fiction” to believe that the profiles the company built were reliable enough to convince people to vote for a candidate they would not normally have supported.

“The data is entirely ineffective for microtargeting and in fact I believe psychographics as a whole is a dead end for this purpose,” Kogan said. “There is value to the data if you’re trying to understand the general trends over big groups of people, but for any one person, it simply doesn’t work.”

Kogan said the application was only able to correctly identify the five personality traits it was built to predict in 1 percent of users, while it predicted all five incorrectly about 6 percent of the time. He said Facebook’s existing ad targeting services would have been much more effective for Cambridge Analytica’s purposes than the data pulled from his quiz.

Nevertheless, senators at the hearing repeated their calls for increased regulation of the social media giant and other companies that rely on user data as part of their business model, though consensus did not emerge at the hearing as to exactly what that regulation might look like.

Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission, told the committee he believes the evidence he has seen suggests Facebook’s data practices violate a consent decree the company entered into with the federal government in 2011 over allegations that it made public some information its users thought would remain private.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., agreed with Soltani’s opinion, saying he plans to recommend the FTC seek injunctive relief under the consent decree and conduct additional investigations as necessary.

Blumenthal also floated the idea of embracing rules similar to those the European Union adopted in its General Data Protection Regulation, which imposes more rigorous user consent requirements on tech companies wishing to gather user data.

John Battelle, the CEO of NewCo and the author of a book on Google, did not outright oppose the European-style regulation, but said he has concerns that imposing sweeping regulation will keep out small innovators while consolidating power for the big players like Facebook.

“GDPR, what I disagree with is not the intent of the regulation, what I disagree with is how it’s implemented and how it actually allows large companies to grow larger and have larger moats around them, which leads to an oligarchy of data controllers,”  Battelle said. “That’s my objection.”

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