Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, breaks his silenceSpandan Sharma
A lot of the narrative in the Cambridge Analytica scandal has centred around social media giant Facebook, its Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the British data firm itself. These parties, for their part, have often been eager to move the narrative away from themselves to focus on Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge research associate who originally collected user data from Facebook and then sold it Cambridge Analytica. Aleksandr has maintained a relatively low profile through all this, until now.
In interviews to CBS News’ 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl and BuzzFeed News’s Ryan Mac on Sunday, April 22, Aleksandr has, for the first time, spoken up about his reactions to the entire episode and his role in it.
Aleksandr has been painted as the villain of the entire scandal, as the developer who stole user data from Facebook and then sold it for commercial profit, but he disputes this view. According to him, he took something that was there for the taking. “The idea that we stole the data, I think, is technically incorrect. I mean, they created these great tools for developers to collect the data. And they made it very easy. I mean, this was not a hack. This was, ‘Here’s the door. It’s open. We’re giving away the groceries. Please collect them.’...I think there’s utility to trying to tell the narrative that this is a special case that I was a rogue app, and this was really unusual. Because if the truth is told, and this is pretty usual and normal, it’s a much bigger problem,” he said in the interview to 60 Minutes.
The 28-year-old Cambridge researcher has said that he believes he is being unfairly targeted by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica but is also repentant about his actions and data collection policies. He told 60 Minutes, “Back then we thought it was fine. Right now my opinion has really been changed. And it’s been changed in particular because I think that core idea that we had – that everybody knows and nobody cares – was fundamentally flawed. And so if that idea is wrong, then what we did was not right and was not wise. And for that, I’m sincerely sorry.”
Aleksandr states that the Terms of Service of his survey “ThisIsYourDigitalLife” clearly stated that user data could be used for commercial purposes, a clear violation of Facebook’s developer policy, but the social media giant never pulled him up for the same. During the interview, he revealed, “I had a terms of service that was up there for a year and a half that said I could transfer and sell the data. Never heard a word. The belief in Silicon Valley and certainly our belief at that point was that the general public must be aware that their data is being sold and shared and used to advertise to them. And nobody cares.”
However, the furore raised after the scandal became public shows that people do care. Facebook has been forced to update its data policies to give users greater say in what data is shared and where, and Mark Zuckerberg has testified before the US Congress that he and his company will take stricter steps in the future to protect user data. For his part, Aleksandr is set to testify before a UK parliamentary committee tomorrow, April 24, to clarify whether his data influenced global elections, including the Brexit referendum in the UK.
Aleksandr is eager to set the record straight. He says he has come to terms with the professional ramifications of the scandal (Aleksandr is unlikely to hold another academic position after his current term at Cambridge ends next year, and has said he’s too “toxic” to be hired by any company), but wants to clarify emphatically that he is not a Russian spy (as has been insinuated in a few publications), and that the major issue at stake here is user privacy and not election manipulation. As he said to BuzzFeed News, “If there’s one message I want parliament to walk away from, it’s not: Alex didn’t do anything wrong, he’s been scapegoated...The main message is: What you’ve been worried about is b******t, but there is a real issue to think about.”
While Facebook tries to bounce back from this data breach with the world the company’s every move closely, Aleksandr’s statements throw light on the bigger challenge here – how do big companies like Facebook, Google, and others collect data, and what do they do with it? Data is the new resource in demand, but how it’s being used now is a question that is more important than ever before.