How Facebook Played Down Ties to Cambridge Analytica Figure

By Dwoskin, Elizabeth; Harwell, Drew et al. | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 24, 2018 | Go to article overview

How Facebook Played Down Ties to Cambridge Analytica Figure


Dwoskin, Elizabeth, Harwell, Drew, Post, Craig Timberg The Washington, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Elizabeth Dwoskin, Drew Harwell and Craig Timberg The Washington Post

The psychologist who disseminated Facebook user data to an analytics firm working for the Trump campaign had a closer relationship with the social network than it has let on, co-authoring a research paper based on a massive amount of data that Facebook provided to him.

Facebook last week accused Cambridge University psychologist Aleksandr Kogan of obtaining data on at least 30 million Facebook users and inappropriately sharing it with Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm. Facebook has said little about Kogan besides asserting that he lied when he claimed his data-gathering would be used only for academic research.

Two of Facebook's own data scientists worked with Kogan between 2013 and 2015, according to the paper. As part of the research, which was separate from Kogan's work for Cambridge Analytica, Facebook provided Kogan with data on 57 billion Facebook friendships, according to the paper.

Interviews and emails between Kogan and his Cambridge Analytica colleagues, provided by Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie to The Washington Post, reveal Kogan as an ambitious academic who traveled the world to lecture and made inroads in some of the most elite universities in the United States and Europe as he sought new opportunities to build more elaborate databases and profit from his work, such as by working with for-profit firms such as Cambridge Analytica.

During his contract with Cambridge Analytica, the psychologist tried to acquire medical and genetic records of Americans to combine with troves of online data he claimed to have obtained. To that end, Kogan tried to create a partnership with Harvard Medical School and with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to merge his data sets with medical and genetic data, according to emails.

"One of the people I met with at Harvard medical said he might be able to get us millions of medical records and also genetic data to link up to everything. Can you imagine the possibilities then?" Kogan wrote to Cambridge Analytica data scientists in a February 2014 email. "It's going to be AMAZING."

Two Harvard professors cited in Kogan's emails said Kogan voiced interest in working together, but they say they never supplied him with any medical data.

In an interview Thursday, Kogan said he feels that his work for Cambridge Analytica was in full compliance with Facebook's data policies at the time. He said he always assumed the medical data would be anonymous and an academic project unrelated to his Cambridge Analytica work.

"Tech companies and developers like myself have been given a wake-up call that things we think are OK are not OK to people, and people feel angry and violated," Kogan said. "And that is on myself, on Cambridge Analytica, on developers of that era, on Facebook, and on tech companies, because this is the culture that does exist."

Partnerships with academics such as Kogan, 31, have been an integral part of Facebook's broader effort to demonstrate that the social network is a potent force in society and a tool of social insight. Many academics partner with Facebook because the social network will not give them access to the data they seek unless the research is conducted jointly, and some researchers have raised concerns that Facebook is creating a conflict of interest for them.

But Kogan's academic association with Facebook, around the same time that he was taking data to hand off to Cambridge Analytica, raises questions about how user consent was obtained, and about the line between academic research and corporate marketing -- and how scholars can sometimes use data for commercial and political ends.

"We are strongly committed to protecting people's information," Facebook said in a statement. "We know there's more that we could have done, and as [chief executive] Mark Zuckerberg said this week, we are working hard to tackle past abuse and are continuing to investigate. …

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