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Technologist at Heart of Cambridge Analytica Privacy Scandal Defends Himself Before Senate Committee

in Broadband's Impact/Privacy/Senate by

WASHINGTON, June 21, 2018 - The man behind the app at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal defended the company’s use of personal data in front of the Senate, claiming he believed there was “almost no chance” that the data helped political campaigns in the 2016 election.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on Wednesday hosted a hearing “Cambridge Analytica and Other Facebook Partners: Examining Data Privacy Risks” to follow up on the previous congressional hearings involving Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

At the hearing, Aleksandr Kogan - creator of the app “thisisyourdigitallife” in 2013 that collected data to create psychological profiles of users - denied accusations regarding Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of private user data. His app collected data on millions of Facebook users that was then passed along to Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica’s user of data a ‘point of confusion’

Kogan countered accusations that personal data was used by Cambridge Analytica for targeted ad campaigning, calling it a “point of confusion.”

“The project we did had little to no use for someone wanting to run targeted ads on Facebook,” Kogan said in his testimony. “The Facebook ads platform already provided SCL with many tools to run targeted ads with little need for our work.”

SCL Elections was the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, before it shut down in May 2018 over the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Despite Kogan’s claims that the project he began had “little to no use” for those running digital ads, the gathering a psychological profile to optimize targeted ads may have significant effects on interview viewers.

According a 2017 study of more than 3.5 million individuals published by the National Academies of Sciences, targeted ads to users based on an individual’s personality traits can result in more than 40 percent more clicks, and up to 50 percent more purchases.

Is tracking ads a form of ‘mind control’?

Kogan said that one of the primary reasons the public became concerned over the issue was that they believed it to be a kind of “mind control” effort.

“This concern rests on an incorrect premise about the data and its utility,” Kogan said. “I believe there is almost no chance this data could have been helpful to a political campaign—and I still have not seen any evidence to indicate that the Trump campaign used this dataset to micro-target voters.”

Regarding the outrage from the public over the sharing of data indirectly or directly in ways they had not predicted, Kogan expressed remorse.

“I’m very regretful that I did not better anticipate this reaction,” Kogan said. He then went on to call out the entire digital advertising industry’s practices, calling the problem “inevitable.”

(Photo of Aleksandr Kogan courtesy the Daily Californian.)

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