All posts in “Data”

Twitter also sold data access to Cambridge Analytica researcher

Since it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed the personal data of millions of Facebook users, one question has lingered in the minds of the public: What other data did Dr. Aleksandr Kogan gain access to?

Twitter confirmed to The Telegraph on Saturday that GSR, Kogan’s own commercial enterprise, had purchased one-time API access to a random sample of public tweets from a five-month period between December 2014 and April 2015. Twitter told Bloomberg that, following an internal review, the company did not find any access to private data about people who use Twitter.

Twitter sells API access to large organizations or enterprises for the purposes of surveying sentiment or opinion during various events, or around certain topics or ideas.

Here’s what a Twitter spokesperson said to The Telegraph:

Twitter has also made the policy decision to off-board advertising from all accounts owned and operated by Cambridge Analytica. This decision is based on our determination that Cambridge Analytica operates using a business model that inherently conflicts with acceptable Twitter Ads business practices. Cambridge Analytica may remain an organic user on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.

Obviously, this doesn’t have the same scope as the data harvested about users on Facebook. Twitter’s data on users is far less personal. Location on the platform is opt-in and generic at that, and users are not forced to use their real name on the platform.

Still, it shows just how broad the Cambridge Analytica data collection was ahead of the 2016 election.

We reached out to Twitter and will update when we hear back.

Data scientist at centre of Cambridge Analytica scandal apologises for his role in it

The data scientist at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Aleksandr Kogan, has apologised for his role in it.

Kogan spoke to 60 Minutes on Sunday, maintaining that at the time, he believed he was doing everything correctly, and that he wouldn’t have done anything to destroy his relationship with Facebook. 

But Kogan apologised for thinking that people knew they were giving away their data.

“Back then we thought it was fine. Right now my opinion has really been changed,” he told the program.  

“And it’s been changed in particular, because I think that core idea that we had — that everybody knows and nobody cares — was fundamentally flawed. And so if that idea is wrong, then what we did was not right and was not wise. And for that, I’m sincerely sorry.”

Facebook has since expressed remorse, taking out full-page ads to say sorry too back in April. Mark Zuckerberg also said sorry in Congress

Of course, things weren’t so contrite amid revelations of the scandal, when the social media giant said Kogan “lied” to them. He said Facebook allowed it to happen, because it “clearly has never cared” nor enforced its developer policy. 

Kogan’s app had a terms of service which allowed transfer or sale of user data, despite it being in conflict with Facebook policy.

“And they tell you that they can monitor it. And they can audit. And can let you know if you do anything wrong. I had a terms of service that was up there for a year and a half that said I could transfer and sell the data. Never heard a word [from Facebook],” he said.

“The belief in Silicon Valley and certainly our belief at that point was that the general public must be aware that their data is being sold and shared and used to advertise to them. And nobody cares.”

Kogan maintained he was being singled out by Facebook, even though he believes the problem is much bigger. He pointed to a former colleague, Joseph Chancellor, who now works for Facebook but said they “did everything together” for the Cambridge Analytica project and has escaped blame.

Facebook even worked with Kogan between 2013 and 2015, where he said he was brought in to teach staff about what he learnt from the data he collected from Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook confirmed to 60 Minutes that he did some “research and consulting” work with them, but wasn’t aware of Kogan’s Cambridge Analytica activities.

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Cambridge University hits back at Zuckerberg’s shade

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the House yesterday was a mostly bland performance, punctuated by frequent claims not to know or remember certain fundamental aspects of his own business. But he gave a curiously specific and aggressive response to a question from congressman Eliot Engel.

Starting from the premise that Facebook had been “deceived” by other players in the data misuse scandal it’s embroiled in, the congressman wondered whether Facebook intends to sue Cambridge Analytica, professor Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge University — perhaps for unauthorized access to computer networks or breach of contract?

“It’s something that we’re looking into,” replied Zuckerberg. “We already took action by banning [Kogan] from the platform and we’re going to be doing a full audit to make sure he gets rid of all the data that he has as well.”

But the Facebook founder also seized on the opportunity to indulge in a little suggestive shade throwing which looked very much like an attempt to blame-shift responsibility for the massive data scandal embroiling his company onto, of all things, one of the UK’s most prestigious universities. (Which, full disclosure, is my own alma mater.)

“To your point about Cambridge University what we’ve found now is that there’s a whole program associated with Cambridge University where a number of researchers — not just Aleksandr Kogan, although to our current knowledge he’s the only one who sold the data to Cambridge Analytica — there are a number of the researchers who are building similar apps,” said Zuckerberg.

“So we do need to understand whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us.”

What’s curious about this response is that Zuckerberg elides to mention how Facebook’s own staff have worked with the program he’s suggesting his company “found now” — as if it had only discovered the existence of the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre, whose researchers have in fact been working with Facebook data since at least 2007, since the Cambridge Analytica story snowballed into a major public scandal last month.

A Facebook data-related project that the center is involved with, called the myPersonality Project — which started as a student side project of the now deputy director of the Psychometrics Centre, David Stillwell — was essentially the accidental inspiration for Kogan’s thisismydigitallife quiz app, according to testimony given to the UK parliament by former Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wylie last month.

Here’s how the project is described on the Centre’s website:

myPersonality was a popular Facebook application that allowed users to take real psychometric tests, and allowed us to record (with consent!) their psychological and Facebook profiles. Currently, our database contains more than 6,000,000 test results, together with more than 4,000,000 individual Facebook profiles. Our respondents come from various age groups, backgrounds, and cultures. They are highly motivated to answer honestly and carefully, as the only gratification that they receive for their participation is feedback on their results.

The center itself has been active within Cambridge University since 2005, conducting research, teaching and product development in pure and applied psychological assessment — and claiming to have seen “significant growth in the past twelve years as a consequence of the explosion of activity in online communication and social networks”. 

And while it’s of course possible that Zuckerberg and his staff might not have been aware of the myPersonality Facebook app project — after all 4M Facebook profiles harvested is rather less than the up to 87M Kogan was able to extract, also apparently without Facebook noticing — what’s rather harder for Zuckerberg to deny knowledge of is the fact his company’s own staff have worked with Cambridge University researchers on projects analyzing Facebook data for psychological profiling purposes for years. Since at least 2015.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch yesterday, the University expressed surprise at Zuckerberg’s remarks to the house.

“We would be surprised if Mr Zuckerberg was only now aware of research at the University of Cambridge looking at what an individual’s Facebook data says about them,” a spokesperson told us. “Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, and these studies have been reported widely in international media. These have included one study in 2015 led by Dr Aleksandr Spectre (Kogan) and co-authored by two Facebook employees.”

The two Facebook employees who worked alongside Kogan (who was using the surname Spectre at the time) on that 2015 study — which looked at international friendships as a class marker by examining Facebook users’ friend networks — are named in the paper as Charles Gronin and Pete Fleming.

It’s not clear whether Gronin still works for Facebook. But a LinkedIn search suggests Fleming is now head of research for Facebook-owned Instagram.

We’ve asked Facebook to confirm whether the two researchers are still on its payroll and will update this story with any response.

In its statement, Cambridge University also said it’s still waiting for Facebook to provide it with evidence regarding Kogan’s activities. “We wrote to Facebook on 21 March to ask it to provide evidence to support its allegations about Dr Kogan. We have yet to receive a response,” it told us.

For his part Kogan has maintained he did nothing illegal — telling the Guardian last month that he’s being used as a scapegoat by Facebook.

We’ve asked Facebook to confirm what steps it’s taken so far to investigate Kogan’s actions regarding the Cambridge Analytica misuse of Facebook data — and will update this story with any response.

During his testimony to the House yesterday Zuckerberg was asked by congressman Mike Doyle when exactly Facebook had first learned about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data — and whether specifically it had learned about it as a result of the December 2015 Guardian article.

In his testimony to the UK parliament last month, Wylie suggested Facebook might have known about the app as early as July 2014 because he said Kogan had told him he’d been in touch with some Facebook engineers to try to resolve problems with the rate that data could be pulled off the platform by his app.

But giving a “yes” response to Doyle, Zuckerberg reiterated Facebook’s claim that the company first learned about the issue at the end of 2015, when the Guardian broke the story.

At another point during this week’s testimony Zuckerberg was also asked whether any Facebook staff had worked alongside Cambridge Analytica when they were embedded with the Trump campaign in 2016. On that he responded that he didn’t know.

Yet another curious aspect to this story is that Facebook hired the co-director of GSR, the company Kogan set up to license data to Cambridge Analytica — as the Guardian reported last month.

According to its report Joseph Chancellor was hired by Facebook, around November 2015, about two months after he had left GSR — citing his LinkedIn profile (which has since been deleted).

Chancellor remains listed as an employee at Facebook research, working on human computer interaction & UX, where his biography confirms he also used to be a researcher at the University of Cambridge…

I am a quantitative social psychologist on the User Experience Research team at Facebook. Before joining Facebook, I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, and I received my Ph.D. in social and personality psychology from the University of California, Riverside. My research examines happiness, emotions, social influences, and positive character traits.

We’ve asked Facebook when exactly it hired Chancellor; for what purposes; and whether it had any concerns about employing someone who had worked for a company that had misused its own users’ data.

At the time of writing the company had not responded to these questions either.

Data.world introduces enterprise data collaboration platform


Imagine a tool that’s a kind of Facebook for data inside large organizations. You could build data projects and teams, upload and share data sets, then discuss your raw data and findings with colleagues in a community setting. That’s precisely what Data.world, an Austin startup, released today.

Data is the lifeblood of most modern organizations and Data.world has tried to build a tool that combines data with a social network. It provides a place where a community of users with varying levels of ability and understanding can work together on data sets and models.

“What we set out to solve is that we are living in networked age, but data is a highly disconnected thing. A lot of data in the world is sitting inside silos and is hard to understand when you do find it,” Brett Hurt, CEO and co-founder at Data.world told TechCrunch. Hurt and his co-founders saw data that was disconnected from tool chains, and they believed that was contributing to a massive loss in productivity.

The company built Data.world originally as an open community, but also saw a need for private communities inside large organizations where data scientists and data analysts were often separated from one another.”We felt this was the right time to launch the enterprise offering. We’ve built the best collaborative data features to allow [users] to work in a social fashion and bring the power of people to data,” he explained.

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They created the enterprise product to connect the people inside an organization who were interested in data and needed a way to collaborate around it using common tools that data geeks use. To that end, Data.world’s enterprise edition connects with Tableau, Microsoft Excel and Power BI, IBM SPSS, MicroStrategy, Google Data Studio, as well as R and Python and even IFTTT.

Among the customers using the enterprise platform is AP, the news syndicate, which has been using Data.world to share data with its various newsroom member organizations to help reporters use data more effectively to enhance their articles.

The company also announced that former Chief Data Scientist for the US government in the Obama administration, DJ Patil, would be joining the company’s Board of Advisors. Data.world launched in 2015 and has raised almost $33 million across two rounds. Its most round was an $18.7 million Series B in 2017.

Featured Image: Aping Vision / STS/Getty Images

Pulse Q&A wants to transform the way we gather data from CIOs


Lots of companies need to understand what CIOs are thinking, but it’s hard to get a group of busy people to give meaningful answers about the products they use or their budget priorities in public forums for obvious reasons. Pulse Q&A is a new company in the Y Combinator Winter 2018 class that wants to change how we gather and share this valuable information.

“Imagine you had a chatbot where you could ask CIOs for exact information and crowdsource the [answers],” says Pulse co-founder and CEO Mayank Mehta. That’s exactly what Pulse Q&A hopes to provide. It has already attracted over 2000 CIOs to its Facebook Messenger chat tool and the one it runs on its website.

The idea for the company has its roots in a problem that the founders encountered in earlier startups. They needed to talk to hundreds of CIOs to find the right product-market fit, a process that took months to complete. The the idea of a crowd-sourced platform where they could ask questions in a centralized fashion to speed up that process began to take shape.

It launched the company last year and has built up a stable of CIOs through word of mouth, email marketing, Facebook ads and LinkedIn. Mehta says they don’t offer financial rewards to get people to answer questions, but instead give them points for participating, which they can exchange for information by asking their own questions.

Photo: Pulse Q&A

Mike Kail, who is CTO and co-founder at Cybric, a security as a service startup, who had previous executive stints at Netflix and Yahoo, said he had known Mehta and liked the idea of a private network where IT executives could discuss issues outside of a public forum. Kail said he gave up on LinkedIn groups, which he says are is not a place where you can be candid or transparent.

But he says there is a need for a place where executives can compare notes online. “I want to talk to peers who are facing the same problems I am and their platform gives me that,” Kail told TechCrunch

Pulse Q&A has a broad range of paying market targets for the product including CFOs and CEOs who want to understand CIO benchmarks, CMOs who want to tune their messaging to the needs of CIOs, Hedge funds managers looking to validate investment decisions and journalists looking for data on the business impact of the technology they are writing about.

While the company is still working on pricing models, it doesn’t come cheap, starting at $2500 for a hundred responses to five questions, Mehta said. They currently have two dozen paying customers.

Pulse Q&A web report. Photo: Pulse Q&A

The founders have found being part of Y Combinator to be an invaluable experience. “We are getting emotional support of being an early stage startup from other portfolio companies and partners and support from Y Combinator community,” Mehta said.

As for the future, the company hopes to expand beyond the two current channels of Facebook Messenger and its web client to Skype for Business and Slack and to continue to build out the CIO network and the product, making it easier to ask questions and get specific answers and filtered reports.

Featured Image: Natali_mis/Getty Images