A scandal over an academic’s use of Facebook data highlights the need for research scrutiny.
Revelations keep emerging in the Cambridge Analytica personal-data scandal, which has captured global public attention for more than a week. But when the dust settles, researchers harvesting data online will face greater scrutiny. And so they should.
At the centre of the controversy is Aleksandr Kogan, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, UK. In 2014, he recruited people to complete a number of surveys and sign up to an app that handed over Facebook information on themselves — and tens of millions of Facebook friends. Kogan passed the data to SCL, a UK firm that later founded controversial political-consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica in London. (All those involved deny any wrongdoing.)
Last week, Facebook announced restrictions on data harvesting by third parties, including drastically reducing the kinds of information that app developers can access. (It had already changed its rules in 2014 to stop developers gleaning data from users’ friends through their apps.) But damage has been done: the public has good reason to be angry about the way in which researchers and companies have seemingly used personal data without consumers’ full understanding or consent.