Saturday, 24 March 2018

Will Cambridge University do a thorough investigation of its academic Aleksandr Kogan's role in massive abuse of around 50 million American Facebook users' data for PSYOPS in USA elections? OR will it do a cover-up to protect its image?

Last updated on 24th March 2018

The Guardian article: Facebook gave data about 57bn friendships to academic, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/22/facebook-gave-data-about-57bn-friendships-to-academic-aleksandr-kogan, 22nd March 2018, states:

On Friday 16 March, in anticipation of the Observer’s reporting that Kogan had improperly harvested and shared the data of more than 50 million Americans, Facebook suspended Kogan from the platform, issued a statement saying that he “lied” to the company, and characterised his activities as “a scam – and a fraud”.

--- end small extract from Guardian article ---

This is the referenced Facebook company statement: https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/03/suspending-cambridge-analytica/, dated 16th March 2018 and updated on 17th March 2018. Some extracts from it are given below:

In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe. He also passed that data to Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc.

Like all app developers, Kogan requested and gained access to information from people after they chose to download his app. His app, “thisisyourdigitallife,” offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists.” Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app. In so doing, they gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.

Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules. By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.

Breaking the Rules Leads to Suspension

Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made. We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information.

--- end extract from Facebook statement ---

Ravi: So Facebook is clearly stating that Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University (an Assistant Professor there and not a full Professor) passed "information" (Facebook users' data) to a third party including Cambridge Analytica by which act Kogan "violated" Facebook's "platform policies".

The above Guardian article mentions that Kogan formed a company called Global Science Research (GSR) in May 2014 along with another Cambridge University researcher. The article mentions an email from Kogan to Cambridge (University) colleagues where Kogan said that he created the Facebook App for academic purposes in 2013. After GSR was founded (in May 2014) he transferred the App to GSR (commercial company) changing its logo and stating that it was being used for commercial purposes. Kogan seems to put the blame on Facebook for not raising issues then, and claims that Facebook is (unfairly) blaming him (Kogan) for this massive abuse of Facebook users' data.

I would love to see a full and thorough investigation by Cambridge University along with any required assistance from UK government authorities into the role of Aleksandr Kogan, Asst. Prof (Lecturer) of Cambridge University in this matter of abuse of 50 million American Facebook users' data. Did Kogan make inappropriate use of his Cambridge University academic status to do bad things and get away with it? That seems like a real possibility to me.

The unfortunate truth of life today is that there are many unethical academics, especially those that run or are associated with commercial enterprises (with permission from their academic authorities like it seems to be in the case of Kogan). My experience in Indian academia showed me that many academics get jealous (sorry I am being brutally frank) of the money made by people in industry, including their own former students, while they (academics) remain stuck, typically, on some govt. scale fixed salaries. So some Indian academics jump at opportunities to make better money through a business venture than they make from their academic salary alone.

But academics are usually not well versed with commercial law, commercial aspects of agreements, legal ramifications if the agreements are not adhered to etc. They are treated with kid gloves by the world in general which is deferential to them because of their once-noble calling of teaching, and they think that companies will also treat them that way.

However, once they form their own company, and are into making money there, they no longer have any basis to request the world to handle them with kid-gloves, since they are not academics only now but academic-cum-business persons.

The age when academics could be trusted to lead a higher and nobler life, are over, especially in Indian academia. There are some very good guys in Indian academia and then there are some very unethical fellows who will stoop to all kinds of nasty corruption and nasty poisonous politics to improve their career and to harm their peers' or juniors' career, with some such peers and juniors being viewed as opponents of theirs. And there are many academics in between.

In Aleksandr Kogan's case I would like a Cambridge University investigation to aggressively see if Kogan behaved ethically and if not, to record his unethical behaviour, share it with the university community and the public, and come up with steps to prevent recurrence of such behaviour from Cambridge University academics. That's the way to keep ethical standards high in such cases.

But will Cambridge University and the UK authorities whose assistance it may seek, have the time and inclination to do such an investigation which will be expensive in time and money? My experience in Indian academia, and later as a blogger on Indian Computer Science and Information Technology academic reform activism, http://eklavyasai.blogspot.in/, is that the first response of the top people like vice-chancellor and trustees/board of management of the university is to try to cover things up, and dismiss the matter as a minor mistake. The government prefers not to get involved in such university matters unless it is a big scandal and the media forces them to interfere. Many times, the Indian academic or academic administrator gets away with grossly unethical behaviour, sometimes criminal behaviour, due to this cover-up approach. That then leaves the concerned Indian academic institution in an ethically tainted state which people come to know about from informal sources even if no formal acknowledgement is made of the grossly unethical or sometimes even criminal behaviour of the concerned academic(s) and/or academic administrator(s). Recovering from that ethically tainted culture then becomes a difficult and long effort for the concerned academic institution and its academic and non-teaching staff.

Indian society finds it very difficult to handle unpleasant truths about teachers as the culture over millennia is to revere the teacher. That age-old reverence of Indian society towards teachers is unfortunately exploited in terrible ways by quite a few Indian teachers and academics, many times due to greed for money or sometimes, nowadays, sexual desire towards their students.

I do hope and pray that Cambridge University will keep its high reputation intact by doing a proper and fair investigation into Aleksandr Kogan's role in this massive abuse of Facebook user data of over 50 million Americans which was used to influence the 2016 USA elections. If Kogan is found to have been ethical then Cambridge University should say so publicly thereby clearing his name from the cloud it has come under now. But on the other hand, if Kogan did behave in an unethical manner, that should also be shared with the public and Kogan should be penalized in a suitable and proportionate manner.
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Given below is part of my response (slightly edited) to a mail correspondent who responded to above post contents sent to him over mail (his response is private and so not shared here):
It is teaching institutions including top research institutions that also teach students (like Cambridge University), that have to keep ethical standards high. If they fail then society at large gets threatened of being infested with the rot of poor ethical standards, which can degrade society at the least, and at worst, can destroy society.
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Some relevant articles provided by a couple of correspondents:

1) Cambridge Analytica academic's work upset university colleagues; Emails reveal rows over Aleksandr Kogan’s ‘get rich quick scheme’ with Facebook data, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/mar/24/cambridge-analytica-academics-work-upset-university-colleagues, 24th March 2018

2) Cambridge University asks Facebook for evidence about role of academic, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/20/cambridge-university-asks-facebook-for-evidence-about-role-of-academic-alex-kogan, 20th March 2018
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A couple of relevant audios/videos:

3) Aleksandr Kogan - Interview BBC Radio 4 - March 21, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvtCNPnQtnY, around 18 mins.

4) Scientist: Didn't know data used to target voters, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APqU_EJ5d3U, 2 min. 23 secs., by CNN published on 20th March 2018.

I went through both the articles and the two audios/videos above.

Some points that emerge are (I may have made slight errors in some points below as I am writing them down from my memory of having viewed/heard the audios/videos only once; Don't have time right now to view/hear them again to confirm whether my points below are accurate):

a) Some other academics, including senior academics, of his psychology dept. at Cambridge University were unhappy with the manner in which Kogan was negotiating with SCL, parent company of Cambridge Analytica, about payment to be made to him (Kogan) and two other colleagues. Kogan was accused of taking a 'get rich quick' approach, which accusation Kogan refuted in strong terms.

b) Kogan created a commercial company with another colleague - Global Science Research (GSR). But claims that he was guided on legalities by others (SCL or Cambridge Analytica, if I recall correctly) and so was not able to answer authoritatively on whether he had breached his agreement with Facebook! Kogan tried to say he is just an (psychology) academic, implying that he cannot be expected to be knowledgeable on legalities and all that!

c) Kogan's company, GSR, was paid around 800,000 dollars by Cambridge Analytica but Kogan says that most of the money went towards paying those who participated in surveys (and things like that). Kogan says that he did not make money out of the Cambridge Analytica association with his company, GSR!

d) Cambridge University has not yet made a clear statement on this matter. It has sought information from Facebook.

e) Kogan claims that he had no idea that his App would be used to try to influence people in the 2016 USA elections. Kogan tries to give the impression that he is a researcher who is trying to do good for the world and that he is not in favour of his work being used to influence any election campaign in the manner in which Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have done in the 2016 USA elections.
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[I thank theguardian.com and fb.com, and have presumed that they will not have any objections to me sharing the above extracts from their websites (short extract from theguardian.com) on this post which is freely viewable by all, and does not have any financial profit motive whatsoever.]

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