Ted Cruz entangled in Facebook data-grabbing scandal

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US Presidential hopeful enlisted help of UK psychologists to spy on voters through the social network, claims report

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is today in hot water after psychological data from tens-of-millions of US voters was collected from Facebook without their knowledge or consent, it has been reported.

According to documents seen by The Guardian, a little-known start-up company called Cambridge Analytica, which is backed by a “leading Republican donor” called Robert Mercer, paid researchers at the University of Cambridge to compile detailed psychological profiles on US Facebook users through an online survey.

The Guardian alleges that, in the main, the data subjects did not know they were being profiled, and Cruz – along with other presidential candidates – paid for the findings.

According to the publication, “In the race to advance data-driven electioneering strategies pioneered by successive Obama campaigns, Cruz has turned to Cambridge Analytica for its unparalleled offering of psychological data based on a trove of Facebook ‘likes’, allowing it to match individuals’ traits with existing voter datasets, such as who owned a gun.”

It alleges that the technology model used by Cambridge Analytica involves one person, called a ‘seeder’, taking a paid personality quiz and agreeing to the quiz’s creator collecting a wide range of data, such as likes, birthdays, location and so on. However, the program also went on to collect the same data from the respondent’s Facebook friends without their knowledge.

Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings show that over the course of the year, Cruz’s campaign has paid Cambridge Analytica at least $750,000. But he is not the only one making use of the company’s resources.

Filings with the FEC also show that the campaign of fellow Republican Ben Carson paid out $220,000 to the “behavioural microtargeting” company.

A spokesman for Ted Cruz told The Guardian Cambridge Analytica is “helping with online targeting and messaging, and that’s how [the campaign] find[s] people”.

This is not the first time Facebook data has been involved in a psychological scandal. While there is no evidence that Facebook was involved in this particular incident, in July 2014 the company came in for criticism after allowing psychologists to tamper with users news feeds to display an increased level of positive or negative posts in order to see how it affected the subjects’ emotions.

Crucially, however, the Facebook users involved were not informed they were involved in the test and no consent was given.

In response to these latest allegations of surreptitious data harvesting, a Facebook spokesperson told IT Pro: “We are carefully investigating this situation. To be clear, misleading people or misusing their information is a direct violation of our policies and we will take swift action against companies that do, including banning those companies from Facebook and requiring them to destroy all improperly collected data.”