Cambridge University hits back at Zuckerberg's shade

Cambridge University hits back at Zuckerberg's shade
From TechCrunch - April 12, 2018

FacebookCEO Mark Zuckerbergs testimony to the House yesterday was a mostly bland performance, punctuated by frequent claims not to knowor remember certain fundamental aspects of his own business. But he gave a curiously specific and aggressive response to a question from congressman Eliot Engel.

Starting from the premise that Facebook had been deceived by other players in the data misuse scandal its embroiled in, the congressman wondered whether Facebook intends to sue Cambridge Analytica,professor Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge Universityperhaps for unauthorized access to computer networks or breach of contract?

Its something that were looking into, replied Zuckerberg. We already took action by banning [Kogan] from the platform and were going to be doing a full audit to make sure he gets rid of all the data that he has as well.

But the Facebook founder also seized on the opportunity to indulge in a little suggestive shade throwing which looked very much like an attempt toblame-shift responsibility for the massive data scandal embroiling his company onto, of all things, one of the UKs mostprestigious universities. (Which, full disclosure, is my own alma mater.)

To your point about Cambridge University what weve found now is that theres a whole program associated with Cambridge University where a number of researchersnot just Aleksandr Kogan,although to our current knowledge hes the only one who sold the data to Cambridge Analyticathere are a number of the researchers who are building similar apps, said Zuckerberg.

So we do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us.

Whats curious about this response is that Zuckerberg elides to mention how Facebooks own staff have worked with the program hes suggesting his company found nowas if it had only discovered the existence of the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre, whose researchers have in fact been working with Facebook data since at least 2007, since the Cambridge Analytica story snowballed into a major public scandal last month.

A Facebook data-related project that the center is involved with, called the myPersonality Project which started as a student side project of the now deputy director of the Psychometrics Centre, David Stillwellwas essentially the accidental inspiration for Kogans thisismydigitallife quiz app, according to testimony given to the UK parliament by former Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wylie last month.

Heres how the project is described on the Centres website:

myPersonality was a popular Facebook application that allowed users to take real psychometric tests, and allowed us to record (withconsent!) their psychological and Facebook profiles. Currently, our database contains more than6,000,000 test results, together with more than4,000,000 individual Facebook profiles. Our respondents come from various age groups, backgrounds, and cultures. They are highly motivated to answer honestly and carefully, as the only gratification that they receive for their participation is feedback on their results.

The center itself has been active within Cambridge University since 2005, conducting research, teaching and product development in pure and applied psychological assessmentand claiming to have seen significant growth in the past twelve years as a consequence of the explosion of activity in online communication and social networks.

And while its of course possible that Zuckerberg and his staff might not have been aware of the myPersonality Facebook app projectafter all 4M Facebook profiles harvested is rather less than the up to 87M Kogan was able to extract, also apparently without Facebook noticingwhats rather harder for Zuckerberg to deny knowledge of is the fact his companys own staff have worked with Cambridge University researchers on projects analyzing Facebook data for psychological profiling purposes for years. Since at least 2015.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch yesterday, the University expressed surprise at Zuckerbergs remarks to the house.

We would be surprised if Mr Zuckerberg was only now aware of research at the University of Cambridgelooking at what an individuals Facebook data says about them, a spokesperson told us. Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, and these studies have been reported widely in international media. These have includedone study in 2015led by Dr Aleksandr Spectre (Kogan) and co-authored by two Facebook employees.

The two Facebook employees who worked alongside Kogan (who was using the surname Spectre at the time) on that 2015 studywhich looked at international friendships as a class marker by examining Facebook users friend networksare named in the paper as Charles Gronin and Pete Fleming.


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