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Cambridge Analytica: companies can access 'personality profiles', expert explains

It was reported today that the UK poltical consulting firm Cambridge Analytica is being investigated for alledgedly using the personal data of 50 million Facebook members to influence the US presidential election in 2016.

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Professor Ian Robertson, a cyber security expert in University of Warwick's Department of Computer Science, comments:

"If we set aside the legal aspects of the case then there are a number of technical and scientific points to consider:

  1. Do data from social media enable an organisation to form a detailed insight into a person's likes and dislikes, their prejudices and ambitions? - The answer is clearly yes. This is how organisations like Facebook and Google and others make money from advertising. By collecting and analysing behavioural data (buying habits, blog posts, "tweets" etc.) they deduce a "personality profile" for their users. The "personality profile" is then used to offer advertisers a means of targeting a selected audience with messages and offers which have been demonstrated to be effective.
  2. Could a third party organisation like Cambridge Analytica get access to "personality profiles"? Again, the answer is yes. There are several routes: data shared for academic purposes could be subsequently used for other purposes, or directly, through such an organisation's own activities on a social media platform. Many advertising companies organise quizzes, games and debates etc. for this purpose. Thirdly, there is data that can be bought on the open market and from less legitimate sources on the "dark web".
  3. Finally, did a targeted propaganda campaign based on "personality profiling" have a significant influence on recent elections? This is much less clear. All parties naturally use the papers, television and radio etc. to put forward their point of view. The size of the effect of more targeted propaganda is unknown. In the past the distribution of propaganda incurred real costs. Today, thanks again to social media, the costs are much less and therefore the "cost/benefit" ration may be in the propagandists' favour.


Overall, the science and technical aspects are relatively simple but the legal, ethical and moral questions remain: was personal information misused, - as propaganda containing racist, sexist or otherwise illegal information published? If there is evidence then an detailed investigation should be pursued.”

20 March 2018

Further information contact:

Luke Walton, International Press Manager

+44 (0) 7824 540 863

+44 (0) 2476 150 868

L dot Walton dot 1 at warwick dot ac dot uk