Cambridge Researcher Kogan Disputes Facebook’s Data Leak Story

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. has explained many times how personal information from as many as 87 million people was collected by a researcher and then sold to Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy. That researcher has a different version of events, which he plans to outline in testimony to Congress Tuesday.

Facebook has said Aleksandr Kogan collected user’s data through a personality quiz app called This Is Your Digital Life. But in testimony prepared for Tuesday’s appearance, Kogan said that it was a different app -- created earlier and collecting data on fewer people -- that was used to gather information for Cambridge Analytica, the U.K. firm that helped elect U.S. President Donald Trump.

The stories diverge in part because Facebook doesn’t actually know what happened to the data from the quiz after it was shared with Kogan. The social media giant was forced to defend itself and explain its policies in response to media reports exposing the breach, not its own discovery. Still, the company’s public statements on the matter, as well as its notification of affected users, underscore confidence in its findings. Kogan’s recounting explains the progression of the app he developed and on which he worked with Cambridge Analytica.

The data leak, revealed in March, has embarrassed Facebook, forced Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg to apologize and face hostile questioning from European and U.S. lawmakers, and has spurred the Menlo Park, California-based social media company to improve its privacy practices.

Facebook has said that about 270,000 people used This is Your Digital Life and had the option to share information on their friends, leading to the 87 million potentially affected. In April, Facebook notified everyone who might have been exposed, based on an investigation of that app, which it banned. Kogan said that app was a revised version of a previous iteration and was used by “only a few hundred individuals.” None of its data was transferred to Cambridge Analytica parent company SCL Group in the U.K, Kogan said.

The data referenced by Facebook was actually collected by GSR App, named after the initials of a private company Kogan founded outside of the University of Cambridge, where he worked. GSR App provided SCL with “approximately 30 million personality profiles” based on locations, likes and other information from app participants and some of their friends, Kogan wrote in the prepared testimony for a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce panel.

Kogan says that both versions of the app clearly laid out terms of service, which informed participants that GSR would be allowed to “disseminate, publish, transfer,” the data and would have “worldwide license” to use the data “for any purpose.”

Kogan said he understands why "people may feel angry and violated" and that he is "very regretful" he didn’t anticipate the blowback. In an effort to ease concerns, he said he believes there is “almost no chance this data could have been helpful to a political campaign, and I still have not seen any evidence to indicate that the Trump campaign used this dataset to micro-target voters.” The personality profiles he provided were not part of a sophisticated "mind-control effort," he said.

He also planned to speak out against the original source of the information on what Cambridge Analtyica knew. Chistopher Wylie, the whistleblower for the data leak who represented SCL at the time, was the one who suggested Kogan collect the data and "held himself out to us as a data law expert" who would guide compliance, according to the testimony.

Despite everything, Kogan said that “given what we know now, I believe that a situation like the present one was inevitable,” due to a shift in how consumers interact with companies and digital marketing.

“Trying to fix this problem will not be simple,” he said.

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