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Researcher in Facebook scandal says: my work was worthless to Cambridge Analytica

By Alistair Smout and Douglas Busvine
Researcher in Facebook scandal says: my work was worthless to Cambridge Analytica

By Alistair Smout and Douglas Busvine

LONDON (Reuters) - A researcher at the center of a scandal over the alleged misuse of the data of nearly 100 million Facebook users said on Tuesday the work he did was useless for the sort of targeted adverts that would be needed to sway an election.

Aleksandr Kogan, who worked for the University of Cambridge, is at the center of a controversy over Cambridge Analytica's use of millions of users' data without their permission after it was hired by Donald Trump for his 2016 election campaign.

Kogan said it was unlikely Cambridge Analytica had used the data in the Trump campaign, although he also said that its suspended CEO Alexander Nix had lied to a committee of British lawmakers about how the two worked together.

Kogan said that even if the dataset he compiled was used in a political campaign, it would be little use for targeted advertising.

"Quite frankly, if the goal is micro-targeting using Facebook ads, (the project) makes no sense. It's not what you would do," he told a parliamentary committee, adding that Facebook itself had better tools for such adverts and that the work was worth "literally nothing".

"If the use case you have is Facebook ads, it's just incompetent to do it this way."

Facebook has said that the personal information of about 87 million users may have been improperly shared with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, after Kogan created a personality quiz app to collect the data.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have blamed Kogan for alleged data misuse, but he has said that he was being made a scapegoat by the companies for the scandal.

Kogan said that former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, who was also a director of the consultancy's parent firm SCL Group, had previously lied to lawmakers when he said he had not received data from Kogan.

"We certainly gave them data, that's indisputable," Kogan told lawmakers. Asked if Nix had lied, Kogan answered: "Absolutely." A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica declined to comment on Nix's testimony, noting that he was suspended pending an investigation.

Kogan said Facebook provided him data in an email, and he had not needed to sign an agreement to use it. However, he said that he did not sell the data provided to him by Facebook.

Instead, Kogan said he collected new data through an app for work with SCL, Cambridge Analytica's parent company.

He hired a market research firm called Qualtrics to recruit 200,000 to 300,000 people to take the quiz to collect the data, resulting in expenses of $600,000-$800,000. Kogan's company was paid 230,000 pounds ($320,643.00) by SCL for its predictive analysis based on the findings, Kogan said.

In written evidence to parliament, Kogan said that all of his academic work was reviewed and approved by the University's ethics committees.

However, a letter from 2015, published by the Guardian, shows that the ethics committee rejected one of Kogan's projects in 2015 and said that Facebook's privacy project was "not sufficient protection" to address concerns.

Kogan said that the data he collected had now all been deleted, to the best of his knowledge, but he would double check that none remained. Cambridge Analytica also said that it had deleted the data when asked to by Facebook.

"We're extremely sorry that we ended up in possession of data that clearly had breached Facebook's terms of service," spokesman Clarence Mitchell told reporters.

"That's something that we wouldn't have wanted to happen. But we have put in place the procedures to begin to rectify it."

Mitchell also said that the data was not used in the Trump campaign after it had been demonstrated to be ineffective.

"Any suggestion that the GSR Kogan data was used in that campaign is utterly incorrect. Its effective uselessness had already been identified by then," he said.

Kogan said that he never drew a salary from GSR, the company that he founded to do the research that was wound up last year. Most of the money received from SCL was spent on coding work, acquiring data and legal fees. He was allowed to keep the data he gathered on the project.

Kogan said that GSR had a close relationship with Facebook, and one of his partners at the firm, Joseph Chancellor, now worked for the social media giant.

"This has been a very painful experience, because when I entered into all of this, Facebook was a close ally," Kogan said.

"I was thinking this would be helpful to my academic career and my relationship with Facebook. It has very clearly done the complete opposite"

($1 = 0.7173 pounds)

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Douglas Busvine; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)