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.”