Facebook gave data on 57 billion ‘friendships’ to academic Aleksandr Kogan
Facebook provided the dataset of “every friendship formed in 2011 in every country in the world at the national aggregate level” to Kogan’s University of Cambridge laboratory for a study.world Updated: Mar 23, 2018 21:28 IST
Facebook provided Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher at the centre of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with an anonymised, aggregate dataset of 57 billion friendships forged on the social media platform in 2011.
Kogan was recently suspended from Facebook for the data harvesting scam. Cambridge Analytica’s former head Alexander Nix has been secretly filmed by undercover reporters boasting of using dirty tricks to swing elections in numerous countries.
Facebook provided the dataset of “every friendship formed in 2011 in every country in the world at the national aggregate level” to Kogan’s University of Cambridge laboratory for a study on international friendships published in Personality and Individual Differences in 2015, The Guardian reported on Friday.
Two Facebook employees were named as co-authors of the study, alongside researchers from Cambridge, Harvard and the University of California. Kogan was publishing under the name Aleksandr Spectre at the time.
A University of Cambridge statement on the study’s publication noted that the paper was “the first output of ongoing research collaborations between Spectre’s lab in Cambridge and Facebook”. Facebook did not respond to The Guardian’s queries about whether there was any other collaboration.
“The sheer volume of the 57 billion friend pairs implies a pre-existing relationship,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
“It’s not common for Facebook to share that kind of data. It suggests a trusted partnership between Aleksandr Kogan/Spectre and Facebook.”
Facebook downplayed the significance of the dataset, which it said was shared with Kogan in 2013. “The data that was shared was literally numbers – numbers of how many friendships were made between pairs of countries – ie x number of friendships made between the US and UK,” Facebook spokeswoman Christine Chen said.
“There was no personally identifiable information included in this data.”
Chen said Facebook had ended its working relationship with Kogan after learning that he violated the company’s terms of service for his unrelated work as an app developer. Facebook has said it learned of Kogan’s misuse of the data in December 2015.
On March 16, in anticipation of the Observer’s report that Kogan had improperly harvested and shared the data of more than 50 million Americans, Facebook suspended Kogan from the platform, issued a statement saying that he “lied” to the company and characterised his activities as a “scam” and a “fraud”.
Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has called Kogan’s actions a “breach of trust”.
But Facebook has not explained how it had such a close relationship with Kogan that it was co-authoring research papers with him, or why it took until this week – more than two years after The Guardian first reported on his data harvesting activities – to inform users whose personal information was improperly shared.
Kogan has told BBC he was being “used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica”.
The data collection that resulted in Kogan’s suspension by Facebook was undertaken by Global Science Research (GSR), a company he founded in 2014 with Cambridge researcher Joseph Chancellor, who is currently employed by Facebook.
Between June and August 2014, GSR paid about 270,000 individuals to use a Facebook questionnaire app that harvested data from their own profiles, as well as their friends, resulting in a dataset of more than 50 million users. The data was later given to Cambridge Analytica.
First Published: Mar 23, 2018 21:28 IST