Amazon helped Cambridge Analytica collect personal data from Facebook users that was then used to serve social media ads intended to help President Donald Trump win the election. The data firm owned by Trump megadonor Robert Mercer scraped Facebook data from more than 50 million users, but Cambridge Analytica also harvested data from thousands of quasi-volunteers who work for an Amazon affiliate, reported Fast Company.
Those Mechanical Turk freelancers, known as “turkers,” started chattering on message boards in 2014 about an offer to pay them $1 or $2 to complete a survey through Facebook that was posted by Global Science Research and limited only to Americans. Aleksandr Kogan, a Soviet-born Cambridge University researcher, co-founded Global Science Research for the purpose of collecting data from Americans to be used by Cambridge Analytica, which is the U.S. arm of the London-based SCL Group.
Amazon Web Servies controls Mechanical Turk, which pays freelancers small amounts to perform rote tasks computers cannot, such as completing online surveys for marketers, researchers or even artists.
This survey asked turkers to download a Facebook app that sucked up information about where they went, what celebrities they liked and other data from their own profiles and anyone on their friends list.
Multiple respondents reported the quiz at the time on the Turkopticon message board for violating of Amazon’s terms of service, and the company eventually kicked Kogan off its platform in 2015 after The Guardian reported he had shared the data with Cambridge Analytica.
However, Kogan’s new company Philometrics continues to post questionnaires to Mechanical Turk, according to the freelancer message board, and his Cambridge Analytica collaborator Joe Chancellor also reportedly still uses the platform.
Kogan, who remains a research associate at Cambridge University, and Chancellor, who now works at Facebook Research, did not respond to Fast Company’s requests for comment, and Amazon Web Services recycled the same statement about Global Science Research that it gave a year ago to
Our terms of service clearly prohibit misuse,” the company said.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“We suspended the Mechanical Turk requester in 2015 for violating our terms of service.”
Kogan and Chancellor scooped up individual data from more than 240,000 people over six months by paying them about $800,000 total for quiz answers through the Amazon affiliate and the survey platform Qualtrics.
Qualtrics has not said whether it took any steps to review Kogan’s work, and a spokesperson for the company insisted “all data are safeguarded using industry best security practices that prevent unlawful disclosure.”
Kogan most likely recruited users through MTurk and Qualtrics and then asked them to link to an external Facebook app, which then connected him with Facebook’s Open API.
That would then have allowed Kogan to harvest data from those users’ friends — which gave the researchers access to personal data for more than 50 million Facebook users.
Facebook eventually closed access to friends data in May 2015, but that was after Kogan had downloaded all that data and built 34 million profiles that were usable for his psychometric research.
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