The near-hysterical reaction to the Trump campaign’s reported use of personal Facebook data in 2016 ignores a fact of life about social media: businesses, platforms and political campaigns have been collecting users’ personal preferences for years through a variety of online tools to reach their target audiences.
This alleged data “breach” from Facebook accounts is not identity theft, in which hackers try to steal your credit card information, Social Security number or bank account. The accusation leveled against the voter-profiling research firm Cambridge Analytica involves the exploitation of Facebook users’ personal choices and “likes” — expressed online voluntarily for their friends to see — that let researchers and analysts make educated guesses about a person’s political leanings and susceptibility to advertising.
“This sounds scary to a lot of people because the name ‘Trump’ is attached to it,” Republican digital strategist Patrick Ruffini said. “In reality, this was being done first by the Obama campaign in 2012 and subsequently by other Republican campaigns. This is no different than what Obama did, and no different than what other campaigns and companies have done.”
He said the data collection “was the equivalent of downloading someone’s Twitter follower list.”
Facebook said Monday that it had hired a firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by the Trump campaign, and the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who accused Cambridge of misusing the data.
Facebook officials said Mr. Wylie has declined to submit to an audit.
“We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims,” Facebook said in a statement. “We remain committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information.”
Mr. Wylie said the data were first collected by Russian-American academic researcher Aleksandr Kogan through an app called This Is Your Digital Life,” which asked users to answer questions voluntarily for a psychological profile. By default, the app’s privacy settings allowed its developers to access users’ Facebook information, such as their hometowns and whether they “like” the game “Angry Birds” or the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Cambridge is accused of gathering users’ data without their explicit consent in 2014 and 2015 from Mr. Kogan, in violation of Facebook policies.
“Cambridge Analytica has agreed to comply and afford the firm complete access to their servers and systems,” Facebook said. “We have approached the other parties involved — Christopher Wylie and Aleksandr Kogan — and asked them to submit to an audit as well. Mr. Kogan has given his verbal agreement to do so. Mr. Wylie thus far has declined.”
Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica last week for what it says is a violation of its policies.
The personal choices expressed on social media, along with a list of the users’ online “friends,” can be used by analysts to develop a personality profile of someone with a Facebook account. From there, users’ names can be matched against voter rolls to create a list of likely voters to reach through advertising in a presidential election.
Cambridge Analytica, formerly led by ex-White House strategist Steve Bannon, denies that it used any Facebook data for the Trump campaign in 2016. The firm says it deleted all the information when it learned that the academic researcher shouldn’t have sold the data to the company.
“This isn’t a spy movie,” the company said on Twitter. “We’re a data analytics company doing research & analysis on commercial, public and data sets for clients.”
Lawmakers are calling on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to explain what happened.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, and John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, called on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday to hold a hearing with tech company CEOs to examine what they are doing to protect online data.
“The lack of oversight on how data is stored and how political advertisements are sold raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights,” the senators wrote.
Consumer advocates are noting that Facebook didn’t notify the affected users for two years. Others are questioning whether Facebook users have had their privacy invaded.
“I think Facebook users should be deeply concerned,” said Patrick Hynes, president of the online communications firm Hynes Communications in Washington. “They have been given all kinds of public assurances that this wasn’t going to happen to their data. And they accepted a social media environment that said they’re going to be served ads based on their preferences, but that their personal information was never going to be given to any outside entity that would then use that information for ad sales or psychological profiling or any other kind of third-party activity. This violates the ‘contract’ that we have with Facebook.”
Mr. Ruffini, a former Republican National Committee strategist who runs the digital analytics firm Echelon Insights, said companies conduct similar kinds of online market research constantly.
“It’s no different than what companies every day are doing to figure out, based on available data points about you, to model out whether you’re going to buy a car,” Mr. Ruffini said. “Those things happen on the internet every day. Hundreds of people are doing this to you right now.”
Democrats, overlooking the fact that President Obama’s re-election campaign pioneered data mining of social media to reach voters younger than 30, see a sinister development in the Trump campaign’s reported use of the information.
Rep. James A. Hines, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which has interviewed Mr. Bannon, said he cannot believe that a company formerly run by Mr. Bannon and owned by wealthy Republican donor Robert Mercer would not have exploited the Facebook data to Mr. Trump’s advantage.
“That work was used,” Mr. Himes said Monday on CNN. “By whom, and exactly when, I’m not sure. [But] that work was used.”
Cambridge Analytica said Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign “was famously data-driven, pioneered microtargeting in 2012, talking to people specifically based on the issues they care about.”
That statement prompted a former Obama campaign official, Jeremy Bird, to fire back on Twitter that Cambridge is accused of stealing data on 50 million Facebook users.
“That’s not ‘data-driven,’” Mr. Bird tweeted. “That’s theft. Do not use the Obama campaign to justify your shady business.”
Some congressional Democrats are pouncing on the development as another possible indication that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, sent a letter to Mr. Wylie on Monday inviting him to testify before the panel’s Democrats about Cambridge Analytica’s use of the Facebook data.
“The company has repeatedly touted its ability to influence voters through ‘psychographic’ targeting and has claimed it was the fundamental reason that Donald Trump won the 2016 election,” Mr. Schiff said. “Indeed, it may be that through Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign made use of illegitimately acquired data on millions of Americans in order to help sway the election.”
Mr. Schiff said Mr. Kogan’s Russian background “raises further questions, which the committee must investigate.”