Case Study #4: Cambridge Analytica

The goal of case studies is to provide you with a real-world example of how ethics, privacy, and security challenges emerge and are resolved. The cases we will be examining are generally from the last 5-10 years and cover a range of topics. For each case study assignment, there will be several readings/videos/audio that you should first review before responding to the questions. You will then complete a 600-800 word write-up responding to the questions below. The questions will vary based on the case, and you will be graded based on whether you directly address the questions raised and how critically you engage with the materials.


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Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting firm based in the UK. They use a variety of data collection and analysis practices (e.g., data mining, data brokerage) to help political campaigns get better information about potential voters. The company gained international attention in early 2018 when it was revealed that researchers had collected data from more than 87 million U.S. Facebook users through a personality quiz app on the site and shared that data with Cambridge Analytica. The company used that data to develop voter profiles, and it shared this information with the Trump Campaign during the 2016 election. The campaign likely used it to tailor advertisements and other information campaigns.

This revelation, and the resulting testimony by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Congress, has raised a number of questions about data collection and use. For this case study, you have four readings/videos on Canvas (see below) that you should review before digging into the following questions. You may also want to expand your search, as there has been a lot written on this topic.

Case study reflection questions:
As we have learned in this class, your personal data voluntarily given is potentially subject to being sold or shared by social media companies to third parties, including for advertising purposes. This is the “price” we all pay for using an otherwise free service. In light of this, to what extent do you see the Cambridge Analytica scandal as privacy invasive? Should users just expect or assume that these types of practices will happen, or did this cross a line?
Facebook stopped allowing this kind of data collection by apps in 2015. But in the case of Cambridge Analytica, the damage was already done, as data was collected before that policy change. To what extent should we hold tech companies retroactively accountable for any harm caused by policies that have changed in the interim? How much of the blame does Cambridge Analytica bear for this compared to Facebook? Explain why.
This scandal has also led to a range of discussions about research ethics, especially with big data. What do you see as the biggest ethical violations in how Aleksandr Kogan collected this data? Could changes have been made in how the study was conducted that would have made it more ethical, and if so, what changes would you suggest? (Think about ethics codes previously discussed in class.)
One thing that Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress demonstrated was that elected representatives do not understand how digital technology and platforms work. This lack of knowledge is especially concerning given that there will likely be a large number of tech-related regulations introduced in the next few years, especially under a new Administration. Should there be requirements regarding training and expertise for our elected officials? If so, what would that look like? If not, how do we ensure that future technology legislation carefully considers privacy and security risks? Who should be involved in the legislative process?
Case Study Readings (only use this to make your analysis)
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal: Understanding Facebook’s data privacy debacle, The Verge
(Links to an external site.)
Nature (2018). Cambridge Analytica controversy must spur researchers to update data ethics.
(Links to an external site.)
AMA (2018) The Murky Ethics of Data Gathering in a Post-Cambridge Analytica World.
(Links to an external site.)
Westby (2019). ‘The Great Hack’: Cambridge Analytica is just the tip of the iceberg. Amnesty International.

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