Cambridge Analytica researcher: We didn't hack Facebook -- we played by their rules

Did Cambridge Analytica hack Facebook and steal data from tens of millions of users? That’s what Mark Zuckerberg led Congress to believe, but the researcher behind the app accused the Facebook CEO of being “flat-out wrong.” Facebook should be viewed as the Amazon of personal data, Aleksandr Kogan told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America. All Cambridge Analytica did was place an order, and Facebook delivered the data:

In a live interview with ABC’s chief anchor George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” Kogan responded to Zuckerberg’s accusation that he violated Facebook policy by sharing data with a third party, Cambridge Analytica.

“I think they’re being a little misleading,” Kogan told Stephanopoulos on Monday. “The idea that this was a hack is flat-out wrong.”

He continued, “Imagine a warehouse: we didn’t break in — we went on Amazon and ordered the data, and they delivered it to us. This is a key feature of their system.”

That may be a little misleading, too, or at best too simplistic. The app used by Cambridge Analytica didn’t just place an order for data, nor did it confine itself to data from just the people who used their app on the Facebook platform. It sucked data off from the friends and friends-of-friends of those users without their consent and then sold the data off to third parties. To use the Amazon metaphor, it’s as though they put in an order for a television and then multiplied the delivery by gaming the system to deliver all the televisions to them.

Even then, though, Kogan makes a salient point about Facebook’s enforcement of its terms. Until the Trump campaign appeared to have benefited from those transactions (although it’s doubtful that it made much difference), Facebook didn’t much care about transgressions, Kogan argues. He’s not terribly happy about being made a scapegoat for what everyone else has been allowed to do, but Kogan also acknowledges that users shouldn’t be happy with the situation either:

When asked if people have a right to be angry about the breach, Kogan said, “Oh absolutely, but I think it has nothing to do wit this transfer of data idea.”

“I think it has everything to do with how tech companies have been running for a long time in terms of using data,” Kogan argued, “because the fundamental business model here is we’re going to take your data and use it for whichever way we want to try to sell you things and that’s just the business norm and I think that’s what’s really upsetting.”

Kogan’s not wrong about that, even if he does minimize the intrusiveness of Cambridge Analytica’s actions. The guilt of others does not minimize one’s own responsibility, but the bigger issue here is whether Zuckerberg has been honest with Congress and the public about what happens to user data. Both Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have tried to evade the obvious in denying that users are the commodity by which Facebook has made itself and its executives filthy rich in a little over a decade.

That is the fundamental business model of Facebook and other “free” internet services. If anything good can come out of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the education this moment provides users might be it. Don’t want to be the product? Pay for your services. Otherwise, don’t act shocked to discover that you’re the one being sold.