Netflix's The Great Hack Explains The Cambridge Analytica Scandal — This Timeline Goes Further

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
In case you haven’t heard, Facebook had some issues recently. The original social media site that started as a place for college students to connect with each other has sprawled into something so much more; it’s also a major networking site and news source for millions around the world. It’s also the site of much scrutiny and aggravation, as back in 2018 Facebook revealed that they had exposed millions of users' data without proper consent and then used it for the purpose of political advertising.
What followed was the Cambridge Analytica data scandal that may or may not have affected you. That scandal is now explored in great detail in Netflix's latest documentary, The Great Hack.
It all began with an app called “This Is Your Digital Life,” which led users to a survey to create a psychological profile. Sounds harmless enough, right? Well, because of how the app was designed, it was able to collect personal data from users, but also other users in their social network, which included the user’s public profile, page likes, birthday and current city, and in some cases personal messages. While that certainly could be the end of this story — where an app just has a ton of information about you by accident — this information was then sold to Cambridge Analytica and was used for targeted ads during the 2016 presidential campaign with candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump shelling out millions of dollars for this private information.
The fallout from the scandal was swift and intense, as suddenly Facebook found itself under the microscope, and with this new doc, that scrutiny isn’t going away anytime soon. If you need a little more explaining after watching the Netflix doc, here’s what you need to know about what happened when during the early days of the scandal and beyond.
April 2010: Facebook Launches Open Graph
The company decides to launch Open Graph, which is essentially a third-party development platform. Developers could now reach out to Facebook users and ask for use of their data, and “enables developers to integrate their pages into Facebook's global mapping/tracking tool Social Graph.” Because this is Facebook, concerns were raised, but in the beginning, it chugged along without a huge fuss.
May 24, 2010: Mark Zuckerberg's Op-Ed
Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post addressing the concerns over Open Graph. Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook, “missed the mark,” and promised to give users “an easy way to turn off all third-party services. We are working hard to make these changes available as soon as possible. We hope you'll be pleased with the result of our work and, as always, we'll be eager to get your feedback.”
2013: This Is Your Digital Life Launches
The app came from Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research. After users answered a survey, it created a digital psychological profile for them. It’s believed that during its shelf-life on Facebook, it had around 300,000 users.
2014: Facebook Changes Developers' Access
Facebook changed the rules as to what developers could access when it comes to users' data. However, this policy wasn’t backdated to include apps already on the site, which means that everything This Is Your Digital Life had already collected was still considered fair game. Also, there was no indication that there was any sort of data breach, so there was no need to look into this further.
February 2, 2015: Ted Cruz Gets Into Business With Cambridge Analytica
During the early days of his campaign, Cruz hired Cambridge Analytica. When he won the Iowa Caucus, they congratulated Cruz in a press release saying: "We are thrilled to be part of Senator Cruz's impressive victory in Iowa. The Cruz campaign has shown a unique understanding and appreciation for data analytics and our product offering in particular." The release, from Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, continues, "One of the keys to our success together is the trust that we've developed with one another, with our relationship going back several years. Our data scientists and consultants have been embedded in the campaign headquarters in Houston, allowing us to deploy our technology in the most effective way possible." Cambridge Analytica and Cruz would continue to work together during his presidential campaign.
September 2015: A Facebook Employee Raises Concerns Over Cambridge Analytica
Facebook would later claim that the company didn’t know about the data breach until later in 2015. Supposedly, these concerns were over a different matter, and Facebook later testified under oath that they didn’t know about it in September.
December 11, 2015: The First Report That Cruz Is Using This Is Your Digital Life Data
The Guardian reported that Cruz had been using the information from This Is Your Digital Life and Cambridge Analytica, explaining, “Cruz has turned to [them] for its unparalleled offering of psychological data based on a treasure trove of Facebook ‘likes,’ allowing it to match individuals’ traits with existing voter datasets, such as who owned a gun.”
Cruz’s spokesperson explained, “My understanding is all the information is acquired legally and ethically with the permission of the users when they sign up to Facebook,” in regards to Cambridge Analytica’s role in this.
December 2015: Facebook Responds To The Guardian’s Ted Cruz Story
The company claimed that it then went on to ban the app from the social media site and also asked Cambridge Analytica to remove the data they had collected from users. It’s assumed that this is done.
Throughout 2016: Donald Trump Enlists The Help Of Cambridge Analytica
According to Wired, three Cambridge Analytica staffers worked out of Trump’s campaign headquarters, and that number later grew to 13. It’s later revealed that they’re the ones behind the “Defeat Crooked Hillary” videos on Facebook. Trump then went on to win the presidential election.
May 7, 2017: An Anonymous Source Spills Supposed Details About Cambridge Analytica
The extent of Cambridge Analytica’s reach wasn’t just limited to the United States, as it also greatly affected the United Kingdom as well. The Guardian publishes an interview with an anonymous source who calls the Cambridge Analytica a “psychological warfare firm.”
March 17, 2018: Details Of The So-Called Data Breach Are Published
Both The Guardian and The New York Times publish stories about the extent of the Facebook data breach. It’s reported that 30 million users are affected, and that number then grows to 50 million (if you’re still worried about if your information was compromised or not, there are ways to double check).
March 18, 2018: A Whistleblower Emerges
The Guardian publishes an interview with Christopher Wylie, who was one of the whistleblowers behind Cambridge Analytica and claims he “oversaw what may have been the first critical breach.” He was also the anonymous source in their Brexit story.
March 26, 2018: Facebook Is Investigated
A week after the initial reports, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) opens an investigation into Facebook, looking into whether or not the company had violated a 2011 settlement over the protection of users.
March 21, 2018: Facebook Responds
Zuckerberg posts on (where else?) Facebook, trying to explain what’s going on with Cambridge Analytica while announcing new steps the social media site would take to make sure something like this didn’t happen again.
March 25, 2018: Facebook Apologizes
The company takes out newspaper ads to apologize for a “breach of trust,” with Zuckerberg promising “to do better for you.”
April 4, 2018: We Learn How Many People Were Affected
During a conference call, Zuckerberg admits that it’s likely 87 million accounts were affected, explaining “it very well could be less but we wanted to put out the maximum that we felt it could be as soon as we had that analysis."
April 10, 2018: Zuckerberg Attends A Joint Hearing, Gets Memed
Zuckerberg is set to appear before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees. “This hearing will be an important opportunity to shed light on critical consumer data privacy issues and help all Americans better understand what happens to their personal information online,” Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and ranking Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey said in a statement.
Zuckerberg’s hearing lasted hours, and because this is the internet in 2018, immediately memes were born.
April 10, 2018: The Lawsuit Hits
A group of lawyers launch a joint class action lawsuit against both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica
April 29, 2018: The Scope (Maybe) Gets Bigger
It’s revealed that Cambridge Analytica also possibly had access to Twitter information. Supposedly, between December 2014 to April 2015, a random sampling of data was provided. The data was never used.
According to a statement from the firm, “Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations and, despite the company's efforts to correct the record, has been vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas."
March 16, 2019: Facebook Is Sued
Aleksandr Kogan, who created the This Is Your Digital Life app, sues Facebook for defamation. Supposedly, the fine print on the app explained that the data could be used elsewhere. His lawyer explains, “Alex did not lie, Alex was not a fraud, Alex did not deceive them, this was not a scam," Kogan's lawyer, Steve Cohen, said, The New York Times reported. "Facebook knew exactly what this app was doing, or should have known. Facebook desperately needed a scapegoat, and Alex was their scapegoat."
July 23, 2019: Facebook Settles
A day before The Great Hack documentary hits Netflix, Facebook agrees to a $5 billion dollar settlement for the way it mishandled user’s data and privacy. Not only that, Facebook will create a board committee on privacy, and every three months the social media site will have to certify that it continues to protect its data. According to Reuters, “The fine will mark the largest civil penalty ever paid to the FTC."

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