Cambridge Analytica Declares Bankruptcy, Shuts Down

It was at the centre of the Facebook privacy controversy. Now, Cambridge Analytica is closing its doors.

It took a little over a month after the initial story broke, but the company is announcing that it is shutting its doors.

The company has been under fire over its data-mining practices. While many still insist that it is a data breach, there isn’t much evidence to say it is technically a data breach. The company as well as Facebook faced questions after whistleblowers came forward to say that their services may have been used to swing the US general election in Trump’s favour and to swing the Brexit vote in the leave sides favour.

As a result of this, the company had their offices raided. In addition, executives from both the company and Facebook testified at various government committee’s.

At the centre of all of this is the data held by Facebook. Cambridge Analytica was distributing personality quizzes to Facebook users. That information was then used to track various data points and obtain psychological profiles of tens of thousands of users. From there, the company scraped the public data of millions of public Facebook profiles. Like many companies, this data is then sold to third parties at a profit. From there, the information is then used to target users in various marketing ways.

Perhaps most curious about the story is the fact that many companies have been doing this for years. Facebook’s lack of privacy is something of an open secret. In fact, another company, LocalBox, found itself in a similar situation to the company, yet seemed to make it out completely unscathed. Last month, LocalBox suffered an actual data leak where the information it gathered from 48 million Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other accounts to anyone who happen to come across its database online. That story pretty much slipped into the unknown after a few days.

Perhaps it is the media attention being focused on one story. Perhaps it is the political aspect in that the Trump campaign was tied into this. Regardless, the majority of the media attention was centred around Cambridge Analytica. With this announcement of its closure, it seems that the scandal proved too much for the company.

In spite of the shutdown, the company still defended its practices and offered an explanation why they are shutting down in a statement. From the CBC:

London-based Cambridge Analytica blamed “unfairly negative media coverage” and said it has been “vilified” for actions it says are both legal and widely accepted as part of online advertising.

“The siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the company’s customers and suppliers,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday. “As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business.”

The company said it has filed papers to begin insolvency proceedings in the U.K. and will seek bankruptcy protection in a federal court in New York. Employees were told on Wednesday to turn in their computers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The thing about all of this is this: just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it is right. Facebook has been allowing the data-mining of its users for years. Personal privacy is pretty much a long-forgotten thing as the company tries to continually improve the quality of data it has on its users. Many have criticized Facebook over the years for many reasons including the lack of privacy. Still, people kept joining and people kept plugging their personal information into its systems without a second thought. As such, the lack of personal privacy has long since been normalized.

In fact, it has been so normalized, some people even go so far as to defend the attitude. Some people reason that “my information is pretty useless, so why should I worry?” The thing about this paraphrased statement is that it is, at best, naive. Machine learning has gotten so good that it can take seemingly random useless bits of information and build a very detailed profile of someone.

Already, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already beginning to beat humans in some of the more logically complex games around. Last year, AI found itself beating high ranking human players in no limit Texas Hold ’em. In the same year, AlphaGo defeated the top ranking player, Ke Jie. Late last month, a Chinese company developed it’s own AI called Golaxy that repeated Alphago’s success by defeating Ke Jie.

In a somewhat different example, in 2011, IBM’s AI program Watson defeated Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a three day Jeopardy competition.

If AI and machine learning can unravel human brilliance in trivia, gambling, and other games, what do you think is the capabilities it has on gathering data from a public database? If a machine can find out that you like Cheetos and location, it can probably figure out the probable places you shop. If it can figure out where you shop, it can figure out what sorts of ads should be directed at you. Arguably, that’s probably the simpler tasks for computers to figure out.

So, with the increasing power of machine learning, the last thing you want to do is normalize placing all of your personal information in public online spaces if you care about your personal privacy.

One can only hope that the controversy surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica can spark positive changes in the realm of privacy. In face, Facebook is adding a so-called Clear History” service to better help users understand their privacy. Whether that is enough is very unclear at this time.

Going forward, the stigma of privacy on Facebook will likely persist. What is really needed is a rethink on social media. The old way of thinking is that you shouldn’t put your personal information online. It may still be solid advice to this day if people really care about their personal privacy.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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