The data scientist behind the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data sharing scandal, Aleksandr Kogan, is not very happy with Mark Zuckerberg or the company he founded these days.
In fact, according to media reports, he’s taken to calling Facebook’s CEO something of a hypocrite.
But he is, nonetheless, sorry for the universe of trouble the “This Is Your Digital Life” app he created at the behest of Cambridge Analytica has caused, and wishes today that he had never done it.
“Back then, we thought it was fine. Right now, my opinion has really been changed,” Kogan told The New York Times. “I think that the core idea we had — that everybody knows, and nobody cares — was wrong. For that, I am sincerely sorry.”
Kogan’s app allowed users to use their Facebook credentials to log in — at which point they were able to take a $4 personality test. The app got access to users’ data — with permission — which is more or less par for the course for Facebook games or app downloads.
What was less run-of-the-mill, however, was that those who used the app — and accepted its terms and conditions — also agreed to let Kogan and his team access their friends’ public profile data. All of that Facebook information totaled 87 million user profiles that ended up in the hands of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team after they retained Cambridge Analytica’s services.
Some have speculated that this data helped build the models used by Trump’s campaign to stage an upset in the 2016 election by allowing them to more effectively target rust belt voters. That speculation derives from that fact that Cambridge Analytica is a subsidiary of a U.K. political consulting firm that advertises its unique ability to use data to target and micro-target potential voters to influence their thinking about political issues. Whether that claim is true, however, has been the subject of much debate; and the Trump administration has stated many times that the firm did not play all that central a role in their campaign efforts.
Whether having the data ended up being a boon for President Trump’s campaign remains an open question. And advertisers of all kinds use Facebook as an ad platform because of its targeting capabilities. That included President Obama’s campaign team in 2008, led by David Plouffe, who was hired by the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation in 2107 as president of policy advocacy.
Regardless, the fact that the user profile data was shared with a political consulting firm without users’ permission has triggered nearly universal feelings of outrage. #DeleteFacebook became a popular hashtag (though almost no one did it) and Congress called Mark Zuckerberg in for two days and ten hours’ worth of questions from highly irate legislators, many of whom thought the entire debacle was proof positive that Facebook needs some regulatory oversight.
“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well,” Zuckerberg said during his testimony before the Senate earlier this month — before noting that Kogan’s actions and the behavior were unacceptable abuses.
But Kogan, for his part, thinks that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t that sorry — so much as he is invested in shifting the blame.
“Facebook is trying to distract,” Kogan told the NYT. “They’re trying to make this story about, ‘Hey, it’s a rogue agent and he transferred the data.’”
But that, according to Kogan, is simply false. What Cambridge Analytica did wasn’t unique, he says — the only unusual thing about them is that what they did ended up so prominently in the public eye.
“In reality, I think the truth is, we’ve got tens of thousands of other apps who did the same thing, probably a much bigger scale than me,” Kogan told CNBC on “Power Lunch” Monday. “And they’re all out there and Facebook has no accounting for it.”
Because as much as Facebook would now like the story to be about the rogue app developer that misled them — according to Kogan, the reality is that until the great public explosion, he had a friendly, pleasant and open working relationship with the world’s largest social media platform.
“I was a great ally. They hired my students. The fact that we were doing this project, it seemed like something super normal. I never expected anything to go wrong.”
The issue, according to Kogan, is Facebook’s business model — which is based on selling targeted ads to users who want to see them. Their major advantage over television as a medium, he noted, is their ability to much more specifically pair the right ad to the right user at the right time — which means the goal will always be to suck up as much user information as possible.
“If Facebook actually has to back up a minute and get less data and get people to opt in, it’s a real threat to the business model,” Kogan said, which is why shifting the blame has become so very, very important these days.
Facebook, for its part, has responded publicly to Kogan’s claims — largely to deny them.
“At no point during these two years was Facebook aware of Kogan’s activities with Cambridge Analytica,” Ime Archibong, Facebook’s vice president of product partnerships, said in a statement sent to numerous media outlets.
“It was not until December 2015 that we first learned Kogan had broken Facebook’s terms of service by selling to Cambridge Analytica Facebook information collected via an app he built. We quickly shut down his app, demanded he delete all the information (which he confirmed in a signed statement he had), and ended any research work with him. In hindsight, we should have followed up to confirm he had deleted the information, as well as notified the people impacted — both of which are now happening.”
But Kogan says the denials are just part of Facebook moving to protect its business model — and that holding him and Cambridge Analytica up as scapegoats for the recent public humiliation is the path they’ve chosen to unwind the scandal.
It’s a situation that is frustrating, Kogan has told several media outlets, and that all the trouble he’s experienced has not been worth the $320,000 he was paid for his work.
“If I had any inkling that what we were going to do was going to destroy my relationship with Facebook, I would’ve never done it,” he said. “If I had any inkling that I was going to cause people to be upset, I would’ve never done it. This was the blindness we had back then.”