Ted Cruz's Campaign Is Using Psychological Data About You

Data was collected on millions of unwitting Facebook users without their consent

Posted Dec 11, 2015

Ted Cruz is using psychological data collected on tens of millions of U.S. Facebook users without their consent in his campaign for President. An investigation by The Guardian shows that the campaign contracted with a Cambridge, UK-based firm, run by Cambridge University researchers, to provide the data. And they paid them a lot — at least $750,000 this year.

The company, Cambridge Analytica*, appears to have gathered this data by running surveys. Participants were required to log in with their Facebook accounts. As part of that process, the researchers gathered information on all of the survey-taker's Facebook friends. (Note that all Facebook apps can do this; if your friend installs an app, that app can pull your data). Once the data was collected, the firm built models of people's personality traits (I've written about that technology before).

And how is that data used? The Guardian reports that "Ahead of the midterms, Cambridge Analytica reportedly developed a series of TV ads for candidates...each aimed at different personality types and aired at times when viewers with personalities it aimed to reach were most likely to be watching." The campaign also claims to use it to target people online. The full extent of its use is unknown.

Media targeting is not surprising nor is the fact that candidates are collecting data about people to help their campaigns. In this case, the truly disturbing element is the unethical way this data seems to have been collected. This was not public information; it was concealed by privacy settings, shared only with Facebook friends, and was collected from people who had no idea what was happening. It's data none of us should expect to be collected by companies, processed, and sold — especially when we were not asked to share it nor did we consent.

Some will argue that everyone should expect that anything they post online will be treated this way. I think it is overly simplistic and unfair to declare an entire communication medium off-limits to people who want to preserve some privacy. We should be allowed to have some privacy online. Tactics like this, which sneakily circumvent our explicit privacy controls, are harmful both to individuals and to the prospect of a trustworthy Internet. It's something that Facebook should not allow (please, Facebook — stop allowing apps to collect data about other's friends) and that ideally would be forbidden altogether. 

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*Cambridge Analytica's tagline is "Data driven behavior change". On their website, they state:

At Cambridge Analytica we use data modeling and psychographic profiling to grow audiences, identify key influencers, and connect with people in ways that move them to action. Our unique data sets and unparalleled modeling techniques help organizations across America build better relationships with their target audience across all media platforms.