Cambridge University hits back at Zuckerberg’s shade

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the House yesterday was a mostly bland performance, punctuated by frequent claims not to know or 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 it’s embroiled in, the congressman wondered whether Facebook intends to sue Cambridge Analytica, professor Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge University — perhaps for unauthorized access to computer networks or breach of contract?

“It’s something that we’re looking into,” replied Zuckerberg. “We already took action by banning [Kogan] from the platform and we’re 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 to blame-shift responsibility for the massive data scandal embroiling his company onto, of all things, one of the UK’s most prestigious universities. (Which, full disclosure, is my own alma mater.)

“To your point about Cambridge University what we’ve found now is that there’s a whole program associated with Cambridge University where a number of researchers — not just Aleksandr Kogan, although to our current knowledge he’s the only one who sold the data to Cambridge Analytica — there 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.”

What’s curious about this response is that Zuckerberg elides to mention how Facebook’s own staff have worked with the program he’s suggesting his company “found now” — as 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 Stillwell — was essentially the accidental inspiration for Kogan’s thisismydigitallife quiz app, according to testimony given to the UK parliament by former Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wylie last month.

Here’s how the project is described on the Centre’s website:

myPersonality was a popular Facebook application that allowed users to take real psychometric tests, and allowed us to record (with consent!) their psychological and Facebook profiles. Currently, our database contains more than 6,000,000 test results, together with more than 4,000,000 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 assessment — and 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 it’s of course possible that Zuckerberg and his staff might not have been aware of the myPersonality Facebook app project — after all 4M Facebook profiles harvested is rather less than the up to 87M Kogan was able to extract, also apparently without Facebook noticing — what’s rather harder for Zuckerberg to deny knowledge of is the fact his company’s 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 Zuckerberg’s remarks to the house.

“We would be surprised if Mr Zuckerberg was only now aware of research at the University of Cambridge looking at what an individual’s 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 included one study in 2015 led 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 study — which looked at international friendships as a class marker by examining Facebook users’ friend networks — are named in the paper as Charles Gronin and Pete Fleming.

It’s not clear whether Gronin still works for Facebook. But a LinkedIn search suggests Fleming is now head of research for Facebook-owned Instagram.

We’ve asked Facebook to confirm whether the two researchers are still on its payroll and will update this story with any response.

In its statement, Cambridge University also said it’s still waiting for Facebook to provide it with evidence regarding Kogan’s activities. “We wrote to Facebook on 21 March to ask it to provide evidence to support its allegations about Dr Kogan. We have yet to receive a response,” it told us.

For his part Kogan has maintained he did nothing illegal — telling the Guardian last month that he’s being used as a scapegoat by Facebook.

We’ve asked Facebook to confirm what steps it’s taken so far to investigate Kogan’s actions regarding the Cambridge Analytica misuse of Facebook data — and will update this story with any response.

During his testimony to the House yesterday Zuckerberg was asked by congressman Mike Doyle when exactly Facebook had first learned about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data — and whether specifically it had learned about it as a result of the December 2015 Guardian article.

In his testimony to the UK parliament last month, Wylie suggested Facebook might have known about the app as early as July 2014 because he said Kogan had told him he’d been in touch with some Facebook engineers to try to resolve problems with the rate that data could be pulled off the platform by his app.

But giving a “yes” response to Doyle, Zuckerberg reiterated Facebook’s claim that the company first learned about the issue at the end of 2015, when the Guardian broke the story.

At another point during this week’s testimony Zuckerberg was also asked whether any Facebook staff had worked alongside Cambridge Analytica when they were embedded with the Trump campaign in 2016. On that he responded that he didn’t know.

Yet another curious aspect to this story is that Facebook hired the co-director of GSR, the company Kogan set up to license data to Cambridge Analytica — as the Guardian reported last month.

According to its report Joseph Chancellor was hired by Facebook, around November 2015, about two months after he had left GSR — citing his LinkedIn profile (which has since been deleted).

Chancellor remains listed as an employee at Facebook research, working on human computer interaction & UX, where his biography confirms he also used to be a researcher at the University of Cambridge…

I am a quantitative social psychologist on the User Experience Research team at Facebook. Before joining Facebook, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, and I received my Ph.D. in social and personality psychology from the University of California, Riverside. My research examines happiness, emotions, social influences, and positive character traits.

We’ve asked Facebook when exactly it hired Chancellor; for what purposes; and whether it had any concerns about employing someone who had worked for a company that had misused its own users’ data.

At the time of writing the company had not responded to these questions either.


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