I don’t know anyone working in cybersecurity who was surprised to learn that Facebook allowed access to its user database. I wrote a post on this over a year ago and, at that time, no one much cared. Suddenly, people are shocked to hear that their personal information is being used by third parties. Much of the reason for this sudden outrage is a result of the media fanning a dying fire back to life. If Cambridge Analytica hadn’t been traced to helping the Trump campaign, no one would have taken any notice. But has anyone talked about what the Democrats were doing at the exact same time? No. The only information we have received so far is that the Democrats had done much the same thing. So, in what might be another fruitless effort to awaken the masses, here are some unreported facts.
How many of you have heard of NGP VAN? (Silence. In the distance, a dog barks.) Well, that’s the company that has been helping the Democrats target voters for years. The difference between NGP VAN and Cambridge Analytica is that NGP VAN doesn’t even try to hide what it does. In fact, they are rather proud of it. “Nearly every Democrat running for office is powered by NGP VAN.”
Let me ask one question. How is NGP VAN able to do the following without Facebook’s help?
“Normally, the valuable attendee RSVP data from Facebook Events disappears or goes to waste after an event takes place. By integrating VAN, NGP 8, and Digital 8 with Facebook Events, we’ve aimed to change that. The new Facebook Events integration allows users to link an event to Facebook, pulling attendee RSVP data directly into the database – merging attendees with existing contact records, or creating new contact records for new supporters.”
NGP VAN boasts about how it syncs with social media, and it’s not just Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
“Now, 97 different social networks are matched daily, and also provide social media biographies to be integrated into a contact record. Additionally, an individual’s photo will be automatically synced from their profiles when available.”
(The highlighted portion is as it appears in the original text on the site.)
You can even search specific social media sites for voter information when you use their VoteBuilder program.
And, here is what a search result would look like.
In other words, aided by Facebook and, perhaps, other social networking sites, the Democrats have access to extensive personal information on millions of voters. In fact, in the 2012 election, Facebook allowed the Democrats to use an app which, when installed, allowed access to all of the user’s contacts. Former campaign director, Carol Davidsen, remarked that “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing.” Eventually, the app was considered to infringe on privacy and was eventually removed in 2015.
However, all the data retrieved by NGP VAN remained with them and was added to their voter database. This became a serious problem when the DNC was hacked, as can be seen in this statement they released when announcing the breach.
“An analytics data program maintained by the DNC, and used by our campaign and a number of other entities, was accessed as part of the DNC hack. Our campaign computer system has been under review by outside cyber security experts. To date, they have found no evidence that our internal systems have been compromised.”
Hmm, an analytics data program maintained by the DNC.: I wonder what program that could be?
But that was not the only problem NGP VAN had caused the DNC. Both the Clinton and Sanders campaign had access to the voter database generated by NGP VAN’s, VoteBuilder, during their campaigns. In December, 2015, a glitch in the system allowed the campaigns to temporarily view each other’s strategies and databases. Apparently, only the Sanders campaign noticed the glitch and took advantage of this opportunity. The Sanders team downloaded some Clinton campaign files that it had located. For this misdeed, the DNC prohibited the Sanders team from accessing VoteBuilder. Sanders, feeling that this was just another attempt by the DNC to thwart his aspirations, then, sued the DNC. Later, the two sides reached an agreement which amounted to firing one of the four people they knew had accessed the files, Josh Uretsky. Uretsky claimed he was only exploring the extent of the glitch and downloaded information from the Clinton campaign to prove that a problem existed. Conspiracy theorists believe that a connection existed between Uretsky and Clinton aide, Seth Rich, who worked for the DNC as Voter Data Expansion Director. The conspiracy asserts that Rich, a Sanders supporter, may have seen the downloaded files and learned that the DNC was working against Sanders. The proponents of the theory posit that an angry Rich subsequently contacted Wikileaks and released some documents that proved the case against the DNC. Rich was murdered on July 8, 2016.
Facebook’s Zuckerberg and his second in command, Sheryl Sandberg, had been working closely with Hillary Clinton and the DNC for quite some time. According to a leaked email, Zuckerberg met with Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta, in August of 2015. The meeting was arranged by Sandberg to help Zuckerberg “inform his understanding about effective political operations to advance public policy goals on social oriented objectives (like immigration, education or basic scientific research)… it’s hard to imagine someone better placed or more experienced than you to help him.”
Sandberg idolized Hillary Clinton. Back in 2011, when Clinton was Secretary of State, Sandberg wrote, ”all of us at Facebook are grateful for the opportunity to offer our ideas and suggestions as Alec Ross and others were field testing elements of the framework — only the most recent example of the effective and productive collaboration we find in working with your senior colleagues. We look forward to continuing to work together and supporting the Secretary in this important work. On behalf of Mark Zuckerberg and myself, please give her our warmest congratulations.” The congratulations were on a speech Clinton had given. The Alec Ross mentioned in the quote went on to run the tech and innovation policy for the 2016 Clinton campaign.
To make Ross’ political associations absolutely clear, in an interview done before the 2016 election, he remarked, “for those of you who are looking with absolute wonder at the American presidential election, and wondering how a demented, vulgar fascist like Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president, it actually has its roots in the last 20 years of globalization and innovation.” I’m guessing that he didn’t vote for Trump. Later in the interview he reflects on his role in the Clinton campaign, saying, “in the business I was in, we would use data to help persuade people to vote for somebody.” In June 2016, Ross joined with Zuckerberg in his Andela startup to train software developers in Africa. Google was another investor in the project. This is all to say that the connections between the Democrats and Facebook go deep, but the connections between the Democrats and Google go deeper*. Ross is now running for governor of Maryland. (The caption for the picture below is a bit misleading. He’s the one on the right.)
The Democrat connection to Facebook didn’t really matter at all until the Cambridge Analytica revelations surfaced. In 2012, the Obama campaign was proud of its use of the personal data it acquired with Facebook’s help. As one of Obama’s digital organizers bragged at that time, “if you log in with Facebook, now the campaign has connected you with all your relationships.” That certainly sounds like Facebook helped in disclosing its users’ personal information.
No, the real problem was that Zuckerberg was hit over the head with his own weapon. Cambridge Analytica leveraged the results of a psychological profiling survey that Facebook permitted on its site. Cambridge Analytica used the results to place targeted ads which, purportedly, benefited the Trump campaign. Zuckerberg, who, by the way, has a degree in psychology, was simply outflanked by a psychological profiling survey. Do you really believe that if Zuckerberg had thought of using such a survey first, he wouldn’t have used it to help the Democrats? If you do, my Nigerian grandfather left me an inheritance of $10 million. Sadly, I don’t have the $1,000 to pay the legal fees, but if you send me the money, we can split the inheritance.
But after the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, it’s the Democrats who are complaining about Facebook and appear to be on the verge of unfriending them. They are complaining about how Facebook allowed the posting of provocative ads from the Trump campaign. Facebook did this because such ads get more attention, and, hence, make more money for Facebook. To put it bluntly, Clinton’s ads were boring. In addition, with Cambridge Analytica’s help, the Trump campaign was able to more precisely target its base. The actual Facebook ad seen below is made to force clicks.
If you give Facebook a list of people who you know support your position (Custom Audience), Facebook will use its algorithms to find similar people in its vast user database for you to target. Facebook refers to this as a ‘Lookalike Audience‘. The more clearly you identify your Custom Audience the better the chances of finding supporters in the Lookalike Audience. If these people share your ad with their friends, you have a relatively cheap, but effective ad campaign. The fact that the Trump campaign read the American electorate more adeptly than the Democrats have left Dems with a sour grapes attitude. As Democratic advertising strategist, Tim Lim, groused, “right now, the system is incentivized for red meat, but that says less about Facebook than it does about the American public.” So I guess it really is true. The American public is nothing more than a basket of deplorables.
*For a complete report on Google’s Eric Schmidt’s plans for the Clinton campaign, see this wikileaks post. Cheryl Mills forwarded the email to Podesta and expressed concern that Schmidt seemed to be trying to take more full control of the campaign than she would like.