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50 million Facebook profiles harvested to influence choices at the ballot box
by The Observer, agencies
Mar. 2018 (Extract)
The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.
A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.
Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.
The New York Times is reporting that copies of the data harvested for Cambridge Analytica could still be found online; its reporting team had viewed some of the raw data.
The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.
However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising. The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election.
Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are one focus of an inquiry into data and politics by the British Information Commissioner’s Office. Separately, the Electoral Commission is also investigating what role Cambridge Analytica played in the EU referendum.
“We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used,” said the information commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “It’s part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK are using and analysing people’s personal information to micro-target voters.”
On Friday, four days after the Observer sought comment for this story, but more than two years after the data breach was first reported, Facebook announced that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and Kogan from the platform, pending further information over misuse of data. Separately, Facebook’s external lawyers warned the Observer it was making “false and defamatory” allegations, and reserved Facebook’s legal position.
The revelations provoked widespread outrage. The Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced that the state would be launching an investigation. “Residents deserve answers immediately from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” she said.
Democratic senator Mark Warner said the harvesting of data on such a vast scale for political targeting underlined the need for Congress to improve controls. He has proposed an Honest Ads Act to regulate online political advertising the same way as television, radio and print.
“This story is more evidence that the online political advertising market is essentially the Wild West. Whether it’s the purchase of political ads, or extensive micro-targeting based on ill-gotten user data, it’s clear that, left unregulated, this market will continue to be prone to deception and lacking in transparency,” he said..
Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a data protection specialist, who spearheaded an investigative efforts into the tech giant, said: “Facebook has denied and denied and denied this. It has misled MPs and congressional investigators and it’s failed in its duties to respect the law.
“It has a legal obligation to inform regulators and individuals about this data breach, and it hasn’t. It’s failed time and time again to be open and transparent.”
Paul Grewal, Facebook’s vice-president, said in a statement: “We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information. We will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens”.
A majority of American states have laws requiring notification in some cases of data breach, including California, where Facebook is based.
Facebook denies that the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by GSR and Cambridge Analytica was a data breach. It said in a statement that Kogan “gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels”.
The Observer has seen a contract dated 4 June 2014, which confirms SCL, an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, entered into a commercial arrangement with GSR, entirely premised on harvesting and processing Facebook data. Cambridge Analytica spent nearly $1m on data collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked to voting behaviour.
The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool. It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft messages more likely to resonate.
At the time, more than 50 million profiles represented around a third of active North American Facebook users, and nearly a quarter of potential US voters.
* Access the The Cambridge Analytica Files report via the link below:
* PBS Frontline: NYT Podcast:

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The Syrian crisis is breaking our world
by Al Jazeera, agencies
Mar. 2018
Thousands of civilians are still living - and dying - in fear in Ghouta, by Raed al-Saleh.
For 24 days I hoped that the people of Ghouta would soon be able to take a breath of fresh air without smelling the stench of death that has taken over every street, every corner, every home for over a month. I hoped that in passing the UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which asked for a 30-day cessation of hostilities, the world''s most powerful countries would finally manage to protect civilians in Syria. But yet again the resolution proved to be nothing more than a waste of ink.
The attack on Ghouta - a suburb of the capital Damascus - has been ongoing for over a month. More than 1,300 civilians have been killed and another 4,000 have been injured. All kinds of weapons have been used against civilians: barrel bombs, cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, missiles. Undoubtedly the most vicious strategy has been the use of poisonous gases like Chlorine to force people out of the basements they have been hiding in to then be hit by air attacks.
The onslaught is too intense for the White Helmets to be able to retrieve all the bodies from under the rubble. The targeting of our response efforts and centres has destroyed most of our equipment. One volunteer was killed on Friday when he was targeted as he was running to a rescue center after his ambulance was struck by shelling. He was the 10th White Helmet volunteer killed in this most recent assault. The teams on the ground are living through one long judgment day.
The scenario we witnessed in Aleppo is being repeated in Ghouta: a scorched-earth warfare strategy. The Syrian regime and its backers are telling the world that they are opening "humanitarian corridors", but we call those "death corridors". Civilians who try to flee through these routes to regime-controlled areas are still being targeted. Many have been killed.
Inside Ghouta remain thousands that make up the enclave''s resilient civil society: the doctors who work 72-hour shifts with no sleep, the teachers who continue teach in basements and the White Helmets who are still saving lives. These people have been targeted by the regime and its allies for years and they are still facing a grave risk. If they are left unprotected, they will be the first to be arrested or killed by regime forces.
Today I say to the signatories to the United Nations Security Resolution: your ceasefire failed. Now the very least you can do is guarantee that civilians who wish to travel to other parts of Syrian territory have the right and protection to do so. All those who seek "evacuation" from Ghouta must be protected from killing and executions. I hope whatever fragment of your conscience remains might decide to do something to allow civilians leave what the UN has described as "hell on earth".
* Raed al-Saleh is the head of the Syria Civil Defence (the White Helmets). The White Helmets, is a humanitarian organisation made up of over 3,00 volunteers who rush to pull people from the rubble when bombs drop on Syrian towns. They’ve been credited with saving thousands of civilians during the country’s continuing civil war. The views expressed in this article are the author''s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera''s editorial stance, below is a link to the Syrian Red Crescent.
“The Syrian crisis is breaking our world” - Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra''ad Al Hussein to the UN Security Council, 19 March 2018
Since this crisis began seven years ago with the torture of children in Dara’a; the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrations that began soon thereafter; the snipers; the Shabeehah – their crimes and those of the Government, including the killing and mutilation of 13 year old Hamza al Khatib; and later, the emergence of radical extremist and terrorist groups – the Syrian conflict has been characterised by its absolute disregard for even the most minimal standards of principle and law.
And it all began – seven years ago almost to the day – with the torture of children, and the impunity given by the Syrian State to those torturers. The emergence and spread of the cruellest of terrorist groups, took place on soil that was already being soaked inblood.
Week after week, year after year, our humanitarian colleagues and my staff have issued urgent reports of severe violations of human rights – most recently in Eastern Ghouta.
We have rung the loudest possible alarm bells about the fate of hundreds of thousands of terrified and vulnerable civilians caught up in fighting, whether in Al Qusayr, Old Homs, Ayn al Arab, Al Muadamiya, Zabadani, Darayya, Afrin, Al RaqqaAleppo city, or elsewhere. These civilians were and are protected persons, not terrorists.
It is worth recalling that multiple parties to this conflict claim to justify their military offensives based on their struggle against terrorism. Indeed, never before have the campaigns against terrorism been used more often to justify the unchecked and unconscionable use of force against civilians than in the last few months in Syria.
The maternity clinics, kindergartens and schools, markets and bakeries that are repeatedly targeted and destroyed are essential civilian locations, protected under international humanitarian law, and the indiscriminate obliteration of civilian neighbourhoods cannot in any way be justified by the need to overcome the terrorist groups – no matter how odious the actions of those groups may be.
To push back terrorism, one must refrain from adopting the unprincipled and vicious attacks on innocent people that are the very marker, the very distinguishing feature, of the violent extremist groups themselves.
The Syrian Government also claims it makes every effort to protect civilians. But when you are capable of torturing and indiscriminately killing your own people, you have long forfeited your own credibility.
The siege of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Government forces, half a decade long, has involved pervasive war crimes, the use of chemical weaponry, enforced starvation as a weapon of warfare, and the denial of essential and life-saving aid – culminating in the current relentless, month-long bombardment of hundreds of thousands of terrified, trapped civilians. Families are now streaming out of the area, but many civilians fear reprisals will be taken against them for their perceived support for opposition groups.
I note, in this context, the continuing and unjustifiable mass internment by the Syrian Democratic Forces armed group of tens of thousands of people who fled Al Raqqa during the international coalition''s attack on ISIL last year.
In the city of Afrin, which was captured by Turkish forces yesterday, scores of civilians have been killed and injured due to airstrikes, ground-based strikes, and explosive hazards, and thousands have been displaced. According to reports received by my staff, as many as 50,000 civilians remain in the city, where the only hospital has shut, because of war damage, and water supplies are severely restricted because of the reported destruction of a pumping station. Fighting continues elsewhere in the Afrin region.
In the governorates of Idlib, Hama and Deir-al-Zor, civilians are being pounded by airstrikes and ground-based strikes. Civilians living in residential areas of Government-held Damascus continue to be hit, and in Dara’a governorate renewed attacks have recently struck residential areas after months of relative calm.
Meanwhile, following the expulsion of ISIL forces from Al Raqqa governorate, survivors and returnees face the massive devastation of housing and infrastructure, large numbers of explosive hazards and chaotic governance.
As I noted at the outset, unlawful methods of warfare have been used by all parties to this conflict, inflicting enormous harm on civilians. Government forces, militia, armed groups and terrorist organizations have routinely denied the delivery of essential humanitarian assistance and have attacked protected civilian sites such as health-care centres, leading to countless preventable deaths. In 2017, one health facility was attacked every three days. Arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and specious convictions by courts have been used by the Government to detain tens of thousands of people, often accompanied by torture and extreme ill-treatment, as my staff and the Human Rights Council''s Commission of Inquiry have repeatedly reported.
Last week the Commission released a shocking report detailing the use of rapes and other acts of sexual violence, including mutilation, by Government forces and associated militias during house raids, at checkpoints, and during detention. The Commission found that this use of sexual violence, as part of a widespread and systematic attack on civilians, amounts to crimes against humanity, and noted that armed groups also inflicted sexual violence on captives and civilians, although to a lesser degree.
Extremist terrorist groups have also forced women into sexual slavery and perpetrated other grave abuses; and armed groups have detained civilians for use as hostages, often in conditions of extreme ill-treatment.
Moreover, whether in areas controlled by the Government or by armed groups, numerous human rights defenders who have bravely given voice to the needs of the people, and who have sought to document the merciless and relentless violations of people''s rights, have been detained, tortured or ill-treated, maimed or killed. There is a high human cost for the information that is received by the Security Council, including in the monthly Secretary General''s reports.
The Security Council has not lived up to the sacrifice of these heroes throughout Syria. It has not taken decisive action to defend human rights and prevent further loss of life despite the absolutely shameful conduct that has marked this conflict from the outset. And this failure is deeply consequential.
The Syrian conflict, and the impunity that characterizes it, is breaking our world. Its unspeakable cruelty; the resulting massive displacement of victims to neighbouring countries and regions; the metastasizing involvement of outside powers, both directly and by proxy; and the failure of international institutions to take decisive measures to uphold international humanitarian and human rights law have shaken the Middle East, shifted the political landscape of other regions, set back decades of work to establish minimal standards of decency in warfare, and given rise to grave concerns regarding the future of human rights, peace and security, and development across the globe.
The United Nations was constructed on a commitment by all States – and I quote from the Charter – "to establish conditions under which justice, and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained." But in recent years the perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes, in Syria and elsewhere, have repeatedly been shielded from justice or strong preventive action by use of, or threat of the use of, the veto.
This failure to protect the lives and rights of millions of people is corroding not only the work but also the legitimacy of the UN, humanity''s most far-reaching system for global cooperation. If the Security Council''s role in upholding the Charter, and human rights across the world, is blocked; if it can no longer rise to meet the challenge of crises and conflicts – then, as the UN and the great framework of international law begin to break down into irrelevance and inaction, human beings face enormous danger.
In December 2016, given the absence of principled and appropriate action by the Security Council, the General Assembly resolved to establish an International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to collect, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes committed in Syria, in order to facilitate future prosecutions by international and domestic courts. My Office has given urgent priority to assisting the establishment of the IIIM. Moreover, in addition to the rigorous monitoring and reporting work of my own staff – which is conducted remotely, because we are refused access to Syria – we will also continue to support the complementary efforts of the Human Rights Council''s Commission of Inquiry.
Those who have perpetrated and are still perpetrating these mind-numbing crimes committed in Syria must be made to answer before a properly constituted court of law. This must be assured and made non-negotiable – for the victims; to uphold the legitimacy of the UN, including the Security Council; to deter and prevent future violations; and to advance the pursuit of human rights, without fear or favour, around the world.
There has never been a Truth Commission created in the Middle East. if we exclude North Africa – or an international war crimes tribunal. Are its peoples somehow not worthy of justice and the acknowledgement of the truth when it comes to severe violations of their rights?
Decisive, effective, actionable and unanimous decisions by the Security Council can yet have real impact on the situation in Syria – and help to restore confidence in international order. I once again urge that the violations which have taken place be referred to the International Criminal Court. I again ask the Permanent Members of the Security Council to agree to refrain from the use of, or the threat of the use of, the veto in cases where strong evidence suggests war crimes and crimes against humanity have taken place.
Furthermore, at the centre of any talks to reconcile the parties and establish peace there must be justice and respect for human rights, including the rights of those who have been detained, and close to 12 million people who have been forced to flee their homes.
No settlement which shields the perpetrators from prosecution is worth discussing, simply because such a settlement would be utterly empty. For peace in Syria to be meaningful and lasting, a guarantee of justice for the Syrian people must be assured.

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