As anyone who’s uploaded an ill-advised photo from a college party knows, Facebook is where your old mistakes come back to haunt you years later. That turns out to hold just as true for the company itself — a fact executives at the behemoth social network have been discovering to their chagrin this week, amid international furor over the political strategy firm Cambridge Analytica’s illicit access to a vast trove of Facebook user data.
Facebook’s mistake, in this case, was a classic case of taking a good idea too far. The idea was that the company’s massive map of users’ social connections could be put to innovative uses if that data were opened up to outside developers — allowing all sorts of third-party apps to painlessly add a social component.
Unfortunately, the company also made a critical misjudgment: It assumed that if users were willing to share personal information with their friends, they were also willing to let their friends re-share that information.
That’s how Cambridge Analytica, now in the spotlight for its role as a digital consultant to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, wound up “scraping” reams of data from the profiles of some 50 million Facebook users, leveraging the consent of just 270,000 who’d installed a personality quiz app.
CA wasn’t the only political shop to come up with that trick, of course. In previous elections, Barack Obama’s digital team had been hailed for its new media savvy for employing similar tactics. As Obama for America data-mining guru Carol Davidsen explained: “We ingested the entire US social graph. We would ask permission to basically scrape your profile and also scrape your friends, basically anything that was available to scrape. We scraped it all.”