Cambridge Analytica gathered data from Facebook users and used that data to target advertisements.

But, Facebook also uses its users' data to target advertisements.

I can see why Facebook is upset--Cambridge Analytica was pretending to be a customer while subverting Facebook's business. But the outrage seems to be more widespread. So, my question is, why would it be worse (or appear worse, politically) that Cambridge Analytica was using people's data than that only Facebook alone was using their data?

I see this has a connection to politics because politicians used Cambridge Analytica for advertising. How is it worse that politicians were using Cambridge Analytica for targeted ads than any of the other services that offer targeted ads?

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    The answers given so far describe why Analytica's behaviour is bad, but haven't addressed why people have decided to complain about it, in that it fits in existing allegations about the Trump presidential campaign.
    – Golden Cuy
    Mar 22, 2018 at 8:06

5 Answers 5


When you sign up with Facebook, you consent to sharing information with Facebook. You can read their privacy policy. If you don't agree with it, you can refuse to sign up for the service.

Cambridge Analytica said that they were collecting information for private research. They then shared that information with Republican political campaigns. It's possible that some of the people who consented to share the information for psychological research would not have consented to share it with Republican political campaigns.

This raises a number of issues:

  1. Do people understand what information they are sharing. As you note, this applies to pretty much any Facebook data sharing, even that which only exists on Facebook's servers.

  2. Would those people have shared the information if they had known how it was going to be used.

  3. Did Cambridge Analytica share the information with anyone else, e.g. the Russians or the dark web.

  4. How does Facebook control what information it shares with third parties. I.e. how does it keep them from using the information beyond the reason that they provided.

  5. Is Facebook politically slanted. In 2012, the Obama campaign collected similar information from Facebook. Did Facebook allow Republicans to collect similar information? Or were Republicans forced to hide their data collection as "psychological research" in order to get any information?

The third and fifth are most specific to this story, but all of these issues are raised by this story. The first two are pretty much Facebook itself, but this story suggests why people should care. The fourth covers other Facebook/third-party relationships, but again this shows a weakness in the informed consent model. People who might have been fine with Facebook targeting ads at them or with psychologists researching them might not share information with politicians or anyone else who might pay Cambridge Analytica money.


The Cambridge Analytics situation was more a wake up call for something that has been brewing for some time.

Two tech giants, Facebook and Google, have long been under some scrutiny for selling their user's information to pretty much anyone who can pay. Chrome tracks your activity and reports it to Google. So do searches, and Google has become quite adept at turning an IP address into an identified person. Facebook asserts in it's EULA that what you post on Facebook essentially becomes their property, to market however they want without your approval or compensation to you. They don't put it in big red letters, but it's there. Theoretically, if you mark it private, they don't do this, but they have 'accidentally' made a lot of private pages public, and the Cambridge Analytics app really pushed the envelope on private pages... it used a few mild holes in the FB system, such as a friend being public but you being private, to fill in the blanks.

We've known for some time that they're doing this, but so far, we haven't seen anything really objectionable. Originally, it appeared that they're doing it to better target ads... so what? No one is forcing me to buy anything. In that context, their data harvesting seemed pretty benign.

In past years, one might have thought that being concerned about this harvesting could be a sign of paranoia, but the Cambridge Analytics situation shows where this can lead. Now, the vast amounts of personal data they have acquired is being used for a lot more than just targeting ads.

They can establish your political views by looking at your FB page. Big deal, you say - I can do that. They can do it automatically, which means that they established (or think they did) the political sentiments of close to half the world, automatically, without their knowledge or consent. And they're selling that information to the highest bidder.

If Cambridge Analytica can establish a person's political sentiment by looking at that person's FB page, what can FB do with this information that, technically, they own? Can authoritarian regimes who frown on opposing views use the same method to identify 'undesirables' in their country or target expatriates in other countries by buying FB information? What nations would be willing to pay for that? I can think of several who would shell out a fortune for just that... and find that it's a lot cheaper than traditional spying methods.

Note that FB didn't respond to the current situation at all until a huge outcry was raised... they were perfectly happy to take Cambridge Analytica's money without looking at what they were actually doing. Presumably, they've been equally scrupulous (or not) about selling your personal information to other organizations. This isn't a matter of Zuckerberg suddenly acquiring a conscience... it's damage control after they got caught with their pants down.

And it's not a good sign that FB has to be called out before they make changes. Not the first time that has happened... With both FB and Google, they don't appear to be addressing privacy concerns until a big public outcry is raised. Which makes you wonder what they're up to that they haven't been called out on. Yet.

What the Cambridge Analytica situation has really done, is to get a lot of people to sit up and start thinking... whoa, maybe putting every detail of my life on social media isn't such a good idea after all. FB is a for profit company, not an elected government. They seem to regard privacy and misuse of information to be a PR problem to be spun once it has been exposed, not a fundamental character shortcoming that should be addressed before misuse occurs.

This is just the first example of data mining for other than advertising reasons. There will be more. There may already be more.


One area of great concern is that Cambridge Analytica executives apparently have fewer scruples than their peers. About 15 minutes into the Channel 4 undercover video here chief executive Alexander Nix, managing director of CA Political Global Mark Turnbull, and chief data officer Dr. Alexander Tayler appear to be slyly suggesting they're ready and able to broker the use of prostitutes and bribes to entrap and blackmail a client's political rivals, and imply they have in fact also successfully completed such assignments in the past.

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    Does there exist evidence of a competitor rejecting such tactics? The point is that they aren't being compared to their peers, but to expectations of human decency, legality, or even Bond Villains.
    – user9389
    Mar 22, 2018 at 19:53
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    I wish I could upvote again, because this is the first answer that mentions something other than the data harvesting itself.
    – user5155
    Mar 22, 2018 at 21:53

There's a bit of a substory here politically. One of the stories that has been floating around is that Russia "interfered" with the US election by buying Facebook ads like this one

The problem here is this: how much influence did ads like this bring? In fact, did these Facebook campaigns influence the election at all? Personally speaking, I have some people on Facebook who share stuff as corny as this all the time, election or not. The ads didn't just favor Trump either. They were purchased for several candidates. The Russians seemed to be trying to exacerbate a contentious election

If you're someone who didn't vote for Trump, this looks like yet another instance of Trump gaming a system to reach a contentious victory. For instance in this article on the subject

Before the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica was an obscure consulting company funded by the family of conservative hedge fund mogul—and Republican political donor—Robert Mercer. But in the weeks after the 2016 election, rumors began to circulate that Cambridge had played a key role in Donald Trump's victory.

The article later notes

But the biggest problem for the theory that stolen Facebook data was the key to Trump's election is this: according to a March 2017 Times story, "Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign." Other reporting around the same time reached the same conclusion.

In reality, a lot of this is mixing a strange and winding political story about Russian interference with a poor understanding about how Facebook and other companies collect and use personal data to build a profile on you personally. There are still lots of people who believe that Facebook's app uses a phone's microphone to listen on conversations so they can target ads, but that's not true. Facebook gets loads of data user provide anyways (like loyalty cards, which companies openly use to track data in exchange for shopping perks) and has found ways to tie that back to your profile.

The Cambridge "scandal" just adds the fact that someone used Facebook to mine data with cheesy "online tests" (I see them all the time) and lied about it. But this has been well known to people who deal with Facebook for many years. Many have noted the Obama campaign exploited the same thing in 2012 (emphasis mine)

In the final weeks before Election Day, a scary statistic emerged from the databases at Barack Obama’s Chicago headquarters: half the campaign’s targeted swing-state voters under age 29 had no listed phone number. They lived in the cellular shadows, effectively immune to traditional get-out-the-vote efforts.

For a campaign dependent on a big youth turnout, this could have been a crisis. But the Obama team had a solution in place: a Facebook application that will transform the way campaigns are conducted in the future. For supporters, the app appeared to be just another way to digitally connect to the campaign. But to the Windy City number crunchers, it was a game changer.

That’s because the more than 1 million Obama backers who signed up for the app gave the campaign permission to look at their Facebook friend lists.

The campaign called this effort targeted sharing. And in those final weeks of the campaign, the team blitzed the supporters who had signed up for the app with requests to share specific online content with specific friends simply by clicking a button. More than 600,000 supporters followed through with more than 5 million contacts, asking their friends to register to vote, give money, vote or look at a video designed to change their mind. A geek squad in Chicago created models from vast data sets to find the best approaches for each potential voter. “We are not just sending you a banner ad,” explains Dan Wagner, the Obama campaign’s 29-year-old head of analytics, who helped oversee the project. “We are giving you relevant information from your friends.”


The biggest problem with Cambridge Analytica isn't that a company used data analytics to help a political campaign but rather that a private company harvested millions of Facebook user's information without users' consent.

When Facebook uses its data to target ads then it's okay because it's how Facebook generates money. Facebook is a publicly listed company which is answerable to its investors and government officials. So if something goes wrong its execs have to answer to government officials because they are dealing with data of over a billion people. This is exactly what is happening as Mark Zuckerberg has been called for giving explanation to what went wrong by government officials in 2 continents.

But Cambridge Analytica isn't answerable to anyone, unless they have broken any laws. So if they could harvest user data for millions of people then they could effectively use it for purposes unknown. This tracking of user's online behavior to develop prediction models allows to show topics to which a user might be very much sensitive to and so the data can be exploited. The reason why CA is unanswerable to anyone because in a private company like CA , The controlling Interest Of the company might actually be in hands of the executives and founders .

For example - If data showed that a lot of Facebook users hate an email scandal then that could be used in a politically divisive campaign. So a user's data is itself being used to change the behavior of user - it's social engineering at large scale, but this data should be off the limit of a private company's servers .

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    I think the bigger story about this company isn't the data harvesting itself, but the unethical (and perhaps illegal) practices they engaged in to leverage that data for political gain.
    – user5155
    Mar 21, 2018 at 15:06
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    Firstly Facebook didn't consider Cambridge Analytica 's data harvesting as data breach so there's no legal issue because at this point no nation has laws against collecting user data from social networks for political campaigns - because everyone does that , even obama campaign did it. Then comes the issue of ethics - though what happened was completely unethical but nobody cares about ethics anymore apparently.
    – user17709
    Mar 21, 2018 at 15:47
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    What I am saying is that there is more to this than just the data harvesting. The alleged illegal actions are more about how they used that data (whether they illegally coordinated with the Trump campaign, whether they blackmailed officials running in elections, etc.), not where the data originated. I think this is a good answer, I just think there's more to it than just the data breach itself which is why the story has gotten to be such a big deal.
    – user5155
    Mar 21, 2018 at 15:51
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    Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are both private companies. Why is one more "answerable to it's investors and government officials" than the other?
    – Philipp
    Mar 21, 2018 at 16:00
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    @Philipp Facebook is a publicly listed company (public not in the sense that's it's owned by govt) & as a publicly listed company it is answerable to investors - who are common people & it's answerable to govt because it has data of over a billion people & any decision it takes effects an entire medium of communication & lives of millions of people within America whereas CA is not publicly listed & though answerable to it's investors -the conditions are not very stringent because executives of the company might have controlling interest in the company & hence are only answerable to themselves
    – user17709
    Mar 21, 2018 at 16:17

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