May 16, 2018

Harris Questions Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower on Stolen Data used to Suppress African American Votes

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris questioned former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistleblower Christopher Wylie on reports that Cambridge Analytica may have used the misappropriated data from 87 million Facebook users to target African Americans to suppress their votes. Additionally, Harris raised broader issues of privacy that were highlighted by the incident.  

“Mr. Wylie, in particular you’ve mentioned there’s been a lot of discussion about how Cambridge Analytica targeted African American voters and discouraged them from participating in elections when Steve Bannon was the Vice President,” Harris said. “What specifically did Steve Bannon or anyone else decide motivates or demotivates African Americans to vote?” Harris went on to question Wylie on how they targeted African American voters.

Harris also put in perspective how much data Facebook collects on over 2 billion people.

“Users have little to no idea just how Facebook collects their data, including tracking the user’s location, the device they are using, their IP address, and activities on other websites,” said Harris. “In the real world, this would be like someone following you every single day as you walk down the street, watching what you do, where you go, for how long, and with whom you’re with. For most people, it would feel like an invasion of privacy, and they’d call the cops.”

Full transcript of Harris’ questioning below:

Harris: So we’re here today to talk about how Cambridge Analytica obtained sensitive data about millions of Americans from Facebook without the users’ knowledge or consent and then used that data to target voters and influence our elections.

And there are broader issues of privacy that are highlighted by this incident and I think it’s worth stepping back to pull all this in context for the American public.

To put it plainly, most Americans have entered into a bargain with Facebook and other web service providers in which users unknowingly give those companies huge amounts of personal data in exchange for the free service of social networking.

In turn, Facebook uses this data to show its users carefully targeted ads, which are the source of 98% of Facebook’s revenue.

Interestingly enough, this business model makes the Facebook user the product and makes the advertisers the customer.                                                                                                                                       

But let’s be clear: this arrangement is not always working in the best interest of the American people.

First, users have little to no idea just how Facebook collects their data, including tracking the user’s location, the device they are using, their IP address, and activities on other websites. To be clear, this occurs whether or not they are logged into Facebook and whether or not they even use Facebook.

Let me put this in perspective. In the real world, this would be like someone following you every single day as you walk down the street, watching what you do, where you go, for how long, and with whom you’re with.

For most people, it would feel like an invasion of privacy, and they’d call the cops.

And yes, social network sites technically lay all this out in their terms of service. But let’s be honest, few Americans can decipher or understand what this contract means.

Second, as this hearing illustrates, Americans do not have real control over the data collected on them and there’s almost nothing that users can do once data is shared with third parties.

I believe it is therefore government’s responsibility to help create rules that yield a better and more fair bargain for the American people, one that respects their rights as consumers and their privacy.

In the meantime, I have a few questions I have for the witnesses today.

Mr. Wylie, in particular you’ve mentioned there’s been a lot of discussion about how Cambridge Analytica targeted African American voters and discouraged them from participating in elections when Steve Bannon was the Vice President. What specifically did Steve Bannon or anyone else decide motivates or demotivates African Americans to vote?

Wylie: So it’s not just focusing on racial characteristics of people. Actually when you pull a random sample of African Americans, they’re not all the same people. Oftentimes they’re very different, have very different lives and different motivators. So when you’re looking at any program, whether it is motivating or demotivating someone, understanding their internal characteristics is a very powerful thing because you don’t treat them just as a Black person, you treat them as who they are. That can be used to encourage people to vote or discourage people to vote.

Harris: So how specifically, then, did they target African American voters, understanding as you do that the African American population is not a monolith? How did they then decipher and determine who was African American so they would target them in their intent to suppress the vote?

Wylie: So racial characteristics can be modeled and I’m not sure about the studies that my colleague here was referencing but we were able to get an AUC score, which is a way of measuring accuracy for race that was .89 I believe.

Harris: Can you tell me, AUC is what?

Wylie: Area under the receiving operations characteristic, it’s a way of measuring precision, which means it’s very high. So but to be clear, I didn’t participate on any voter suppression programs, so I can’t comment on the specifics of those programs. I can comment on their existence, and I can comment more generally on my understanding of what they were doing, but those questions are better placed for Steve Bannon.

Harris: Okay and I join in the request for any documents you can share with us that are evidence of the conduct you’ve describe. On a different note, what should Facebook have done to verify that either you or Cambridge Analytica in fact had deleted the unauthorized data?

Wylie: So I can’t speak for Cambridge Analytica, I can speak for myself.

Harris: Please.

Wylie: In 2016, they sent me a letter that said we’re aware that you may still have data from this harvesting program. It informed me that Dr. Cogen actually didn’t have permission to use the application that he was using for commercial purposes and only academic purposes. That was actually new information to me, I did not know that at the time. And then it requested that if I still had the data to delete it and then sign a certification of that I no longer have the data.

Harris: Did it require you to sign that under the provision of a notary or just sign it and send it back?

Wylie: It did not require a notary or any sort of legal procedure. So I signed the certification and sent it back and they accepted it.

Harris: I have nothing else. Thank you.

 

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