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Mark Zuckerberg Picks a Fight With England’s Elite Cambridge University

April 13, 2018, 4:03 PM UTC

After tackling U.S. lawmakers, Mark Zuckerberg is now taking on one of England’s oldest and most prestigious academic institutions amid a widening probe into the misuse of Facebook Inc. user data.

During his U.S. congressional testimony, the Facebook chief executive officer said his company was questioning “whether there was something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger reaction from us.”

Representatives for Facebook did not elaborate on what a “stronger reaction” might mean.

Initially, the company was chiefly concerned with the activities of Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at the university. But Zuckerberg said that the social-media giant had now discovered “a whole program” associated with the school, in which people built apps that vacuumed up the data of its users and their friends.

The elite 800-year-old British university said in a statement that it would be “surprised” if Zuckerberg had only just become aware that a number of its academics had been researching what a person’s Facebook data says about their personality.

“Our researchers have been publishing such research since 2013 in peer-reviewed scientific journals and these studies have been reported widely in international media,” the university said, adding that Facebook had contact with the researchers themselves in 2013.

Unknown Numbers

Aside from Kogan’s widely-reported personality survey app, it’s unclear how many other psychometric analysis tools, associated with the school, existed to suck up or utilize personal data.

Psychometrics is a field concerned with assessing people’s personality, attitudes and intelligence. The Cambridge Psychometrics Centre, now part of the university’s Judge Business School, was founded by researcher John Rust in London in 1989. It researches psychological assessment tools, develops personality tests for industry and education, and more recently, has developed software tools that can assess personality from online data.

It created a software interface called Apply Magic Sauce, which allows third-parties to run their own data — including Facebook likes, status updates, Twitter posts and web browsing histories — through the psychological profiling model that its researchers developed.

The center says it has tried to maintain a comprehensive list of all those who have accessed this API. This includes the public relations firm Grayling Communications, which used the interface to create three Facebook apps for Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., the hotel group, according to the Apply Magic Sauce website. The app ran user Facebook likes through the psychometric model, allowing Hilton to feed them personalized advertising and travel recommendations.

Others who also used the API, mostly to better target advertising or job postings to people, include German computer giant SAP SE and Spanish recruiting firm Grupo Effort. Creative agency Sid Lee Paris used it to create a website to promote the launch of Ubisoft Entertainment SA’s video game Watchdogs 2. It was also used by the London-based Donmar Warehouse, New York-based The Public Theater and Mexico City-based Teatro de los Insurgentes to provide theater-goers with predictions about themselves during the performance of the play that dealt with issues of data privacy very similar to those raised by the current Facebook controversy.

The Center says anyone it authorized to use Apply Magic Sauce was bound by terms and conditions requiring them to have obtained the informed consent of all the individuals whose data was being used for personality predictions. There is no evidence that these companies misused Facebook data.

Cubeyou, the New York data analytics firm suspended by Facebook amid claims it also harvested user data for commercial purposes under the guise of academic research, said its personality test app had been “developed by the Cambridge Psychometrics Center, in collaboration with Cubeyou.” But it does not feature on the list maintained by the Psychometrics Center, which says Cubeyou had no access to the Apply Magic Sauce technology.

Cambridge University said last week that Cubeyou had exaggerated its connection to the academic institution, although it admitted Cubeyou did “design the interface for a website that used our models.”

Long History

Although the university and the Psychometrics Center say they were unaware of researcher Kogan’s data-harvesting app before press accounts surfaced in March, both were at least partly aware of Kogan’s activities.

In 2013, David J. Stillwell and Michal Kosinski, researchers at the Psychometrics Center, published a number of studies showing that aspects of a person’s personality could be revealed through their Facebook data, after creating an app called MyPersonality in 2007, which gathered such information from participants. Kogan, the researcher in Cambridge’s psychology department, was not part of the Psychometrics Center but decided to capitalize on this research.

Along with Joseph Chancellor, a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge who now works at Facebook, Kogan formed a company that built a personality survey app, which gathered the data eventually sold to Cambridge Analytica.

When Kogan proposed selling data to Cambridge Analytica, its U.K. affiliate SCL contacted the Cambridge Psychometrics Center directly, according to a person familiar with the subsequent dispute. Through that interaction, the center became concerned Kogan intended to sell insights gained from its own research without properly licensing it.

University lawyers and members of the Psychometrics Center argued over e-mail with Kogan about intellectual property rights, according to a report in The Financial Times. The dispute was referred to arbitration but the University ultimately abandoned its claim, the newspaper said.