Science & Tech

Zuckerberg to Gloss Over Obama Campaign’s Data Scrape in Congressional Testimony

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sits in the office of Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) while he waits for a meeting in the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, April 9, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify to Congress this week that his company didn’t do enough to protect users’ personal information from exploitation by Trump-linked consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, but his remarks will completely ignore a similar data breach by the Obama campaign in 2012.

Zuckerberg conceded fault for failing to stop Cambridge Analytica from accessing the data of some 87 million users in his prepared remarks, which were released by the House committee he will testify before on Tuesday.

In the “What Happened” section of his testimony, Zuckerberg recounts the failures that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, beginning with the introduction of a feature in 2007 that intertwined user information more comprehensively on the platform. After describing the feature, Zuckerberg moves along to 2013, when a Dutch academic first deployed the online survey that allowed him to absorb respondents’ data and the data associated with their friends, before ultimately selling that information to Cambridge Analytica.

The testimony makes no mention of the intervening years, when Obama’s reelection campaign used a similar function to scrape data from users who downloaded the Obama 2012 app, and from those users’ friends, who never consented and were unaware their data was being used for the campaign’s marketing efforts.

Carol Davidsen, the former director of Obama for America’s Integration and Media Analytics shop, explained how political bias within Facebook allowed her team to continue the practice after Facebook realized how far-reaching their capabilities were.

The only material difference between the Obama campaign’s approach, which was celebrated as groundbreaking at the time, and the Cambridge Analytica breach is that those who downloaded the Obama 2012 app knew they were compromising their friends’ data and they didn’t believe, as the Cambridge Analytica respondents did, that their data was being collected for purely academic purposes.

With roughly 1 million app downloads and an average friend-list size of 190, the Obama campaign likely scraped data from 190 million users, which was roughly the entire population of American Facebook users at the time.

Obama campaign staffers were very open about the importance of their social-media operation in securing victory. “People don’t trust campaigns. They don’t even trust media organizations,” Teddy Goff, the Obama campaign’s digital director, said at the time. “Who do they trust? Their friends.”

Facebook tightened its rules on data-sharing apps in 2015 but has never publicly reckoned with the exploitation of a massive amount of data obtained without user consent by the Obama campaign.

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