Cambridge Analytica and Facebook row academic claims he is ‘scapegoat’

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The academic who developed an app used by Cambridge Analytica (CA) to harvest millions of Facebook users’ data has claimed he has been made a “scapegoat” in the row.

Psychologist Aleksandr Kogan insisted he believed what he was doing was “perfectly legal and within the terms of service” of the social network but admitted he regretted not asking more questions about the work.

He claimed CA approached him to do the work, which resulted in the details of around 30 million Americans being collected, but he did not know how that information was used by the data firm.

Cambridge University academic Dr Kogan developed a personality survey called This Is Your Digital Life.

Crucially, as well as harvesting details of the people who completed the survey it could also access their friends’ information, depending on privacy settings on Facebook.

Dr Kogan told the BBC that around 200,000 people were recruited to do the survey and around 30 million users’ details were collected.

A whistleblower has previously claimed details of more than 50 million people were harvested.

CA has denied using the Facebook data in its work on Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign and Dr Kogan said it would be “horrible” if the information had aided the election effort because “Mr Trump is not somebody whose values align well with mine”.

Facebook banned CA from using its platform on Friday and has also blocked Dr Kogan.

The academic told the BBC: “My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

“Honestly we thought we were acting perfectly appropriately, we thought we were doing something that was really normal.”

He added: “We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the terms of service.”

On Radio 4’s Today programme he said CA paid up to 800,000 US dollars (£570,000) for the work – but the money was used to pay the participants in the survey.

He denied claims from CA that he had come to them with the idea and said the firm had provided the legal advice for the work.

“What happened was they approached me,” he said.

“In terms of the usage of Facebook data they wrote the terms of service for the app, they provided the legal advice that this was all appropriate.”

But he said “one of the great mistakes I did here was I just didn’t ask enough questions”.

“I had never done a commercial project, I didn’t really have any reason to doubt their sincerity,” he said.

“That’s certainly something I strongly regret now.”

He added: “My motivation was to get a dataset I could do research on; I have never profited from this in any way personally.”

Dr Kogan claimed CA’s suspended chief executive Alexander Nix was wrong when he told MPs he had not been supplied data by the academic’s firm GSR.

Mr Nix told MPs that GSR “did some research for us back in 2014” that “proved to be fruitless”.

Asked if that was wrong, Dr Kogan told Today: “I believe it is. I don’t see why that would be accurate.”

Dr Kogan said he would be prepared to appear before Parliament or the US Congress to give his version of events.

In an indication of the backlash against Facebook, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton appeared to add his voice to critics of Facebook following the row, tweeting “It is time” with the #deletefacebook hashtag.

Along with WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, Mr Acton sold the app to Facebook for 19 billion dollars (£11.4 billion) in 2014.

The entrepreneur’s apparent advocacy for people to remove their profiles came as Facebook faced pressure to explain its privacy safeguards from regulators and politicians in the US and UK.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg was called on to explain the company’s data protection procedures to MPs in person.

Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, wrote to Mr Zuckerberg on Tuesday requesting that the firm explains the “catastrophic” failure.

The data firm suspended Mr Nix, after recordings emerged of him making a series of controversial claims, including boasts that CA had a pivotal role in the election of Mr Trump.

The CA board said that Mr Nix had been suspended “with immediate effect, pending a full, independent investigation”.

Cambridge Analytica (CA) chief executive Alexander Nix (right) was filmed talking about his company’s role in the US presidential election during a meeting filmed at a London hotel (Channel 4 News/PA)
Cambridge Analytica (CA) chief executive Alexander Nix (right) was filmed talking about his company’s role in the US presidential election during a meeting filmed at a London hotel (Channel 4 News/PA)

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