Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Governance & Risk Management , Next-Generation Technologies & Secure Development

Twitter Sold Data to Cambridge University Psychologist

Same Researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, Sold Facebook Data to Cambridge Analytica
Twitter Sold Data to Cambridge University Psychologist
Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology lecturer at the University of Cambridge. (Photo: University of California, Berkeley)

Twitter is now caught up in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University psychologist who sold Facebook data to Cambridge Analytica via his company, Global Science Research, also bought public data from Twitter, The Telegraph reports.

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The Twitter data obtained by Kogan included information Twitter's users had made public, such as profile photos, usernames, photos, tweets and location data, The Telegraph reports.

Cambridge Analytica, however, tells Information Security Media Group that it received no Twitter data from Kogan. "Cambridge Analytica has never undertaken a project with GSR focusing on Twitter data, and Cambridge Analytica has never received Twitter data from GSR," the company says in a statement.

Psychology researcher Aleksandr Kogan. (Source: University of Cambridge)

'This is Your Digital Life'

Kogan launched a personality quiz called "This Is Your Digital Life" on Facebook around 2014.

That app collected information on everyone who used it, including likes and profile information, as well as information on many of those users' friends - a data grab that Facebook later blocked.

Facebook has said that as many as 87 million people could have had their data transferred to Cambridge Analytica via Kogan. That revelation has prompted regulatory investigations in several countries and an appearance by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before the U.S. Congress (see Facebook: Day of Reckoning, or Back to Business as Usual?).

Twitter: One-Day Access To API

After the revelation that Kogan also obtained data from Twitter, the social network will no doubt find itself having to answer some questions about how it works with researchers.

But Twitter says Kogan obtained no private data about its users. In a statement, Twitter tells ISMG that Kogan's Global Science Research obtained access to a Twitter API for one day that allowed it to gather "a random sample of public tweets from a five-month period from December 2014 to April 2015."

Twitter adds: "Based on the recent reports, we conducted our own internal review and did not find any access to private data about people who use Twitter."

Seeking to distance itself from the Facebook scandal, Twitter has banned Cambridge Analytica and "affiliated entities" from placing advertisements on the social network. But Cambridge Analytica has been allowed to maintain its Twitter account.

"This decision is based on our determination that Cambridge Analytica operates using a business model that inherently conflicts with acceptable Twitter Ads business practices," Twitter says. "Cambridge Analytica may remain an organic user on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter rules."

Social Media Manipulation Scandal

The scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica has brought further pressure to bear on social media companies, which were already under examination for how their platforms were used and abused in relation to the 2016 U.S. presidential election (see US Indicts 13 Russians for Election Interference).

Cambridge Analytica worked for about five months on Donald Trump's presidential campaign. But the firm maintains - most recently in a Tuesday press conference - that the Facebook data was not used for Trump's campaign and was of little use overall.

Kogan echoed that claim in testimony before the U.K. Parliament on April 16.

"I believe the project we did makes little to no sense if the goal is to run targeted ads on Facebook," Kogan said in his written testimony. "The Facebook ads platform provides tools and capability to run targeted ads with little need for our work - in fact, the platform's tools provide companies a far more effective pathway to target people based on their personalities than using scores from users from our work."

Aleksandr Kogan's written testimony before the U.K. Parliament.

Still, the claims from Kogan and Cambridge Analytica have done little to quell ongoing worries about how social media platforms could be divulging too much personal information about users. Another concern is if users realize just how much personal information they share and how it could be used against them in the form of targeted advertisements.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has also raised unanswered questions about how these types of data mining operations and subsequent analytics capabilities might improve over time and become better at shaping public opinion.

Tightening Restrictions

Facebook has embarked on a program designed to restore users' trust in the platform with numerous changes to how it shares data.

The company says it now limits the amount of personal information that app developers can access, has implemented yet another revision of its privacy settings and has also cut off data brokers from matching data obtained from third-party sources with Facebook accounts.

Likewise, Twitter says it has limited outside developers' access to its users' data. In the first three months of this year, it says it removed more than 142,000 applications that connected to its API. The applications violated the company's developer rules and were responsible for what it called 130 million low-quality tweets.

The company is also trying to get a handle on bogus accounts that have sought to stir dissent. Twitter claims to have improved its spam and fake account detection, although critics have questioned the effectiveness of those efforts.

Executive Editor Mathew Schwartz also contributed to this report.

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, he created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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