On the afternoon of March 16, Facebook unexpectedly announced that it was suspending two data collection and research firms from its platform for violating the site’s standards and policies.
The announcement occurred shortly before the media went public with allegations that the firms had obtained unauthorized access to Facebook data for hundreds of thousands — and possibly millions — of users. These groups also reportedly leveraged that data during the contentious 2016 election, when the Trump campaign paid $6.2 million for their services.
Many people are concerned about online privacy, campaign advertising practices and data collection, so here’s what you need to know.
The data users voluntarily provide to Facebook is worth a lot of money — especially in combination with secondary details the site collects about visitors. If you have a Facebook account, you’ve likely directly or indirectly provided information about your political affiliation, the issues you care about, where you live, what kinds of things you like to buy and more.
This information represents a gold mine to Facebook. In fact, it’s one way the service remains free despite the tremendous amount of resources involved — because they can sell your data. And it’s one reason that Facebook specifically marketed user data to interested campaigns and companies in 2015, knowing it would be lucrative information for election advertising targeting.
When it comes to political advertising in particular, campaigns don’t just want to target broad demographic groups. Ideally, they aim to reach specific voters — especially swing voters in key districts.
That’s where Cambridge Analytica and its sister firm, Strategic Communication Laboratories, come in. They contracted with University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan to build an app called thisisyourdigitallife, inviting users to answer questions in exchange for a psychological profile. 270,000 users interacted with the app, which harvested not…