2 Years After The Cambridge Analytica Scandal: What Happened?

Last Updated: July 05, 2020 By

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was something that shook the world of tech deeply and thoroughly, under a number of reasons. The infamous British company was accused of manipulating data points (mainly collected from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) to achieve incredible success for both the Brexit campaign and the Trump Election campaign. 2 years after the scandal, many things have changed, with more rules being set into place in regards to data acquisition, data gathering and the recent trend within data: mining. Let’s dive into the changes that made data the most look-after asset on Earth, in 2018, 2019 and currently.

What’s Data? How Did Cambridge Analytica Use It?


Data is a complex topic to cover in a single article but there are some general indications we can use to outline what that is and how it could be used to benefit a business. When you’re browsing the internet, you are sending data to a site’s provider which lets him/her know about your preferences on the site, the number of times you’ve clicked on a specific button and many more options. These are known as cookies and, once properly processed in an architecture known as Data Lake, they can be used to create models which could help in optimising your site. This is the “legal” way of harvesting data. What Cambridge Analytica was doing, instead, was a complex process of obtaining such pieces of information from Facebook to then analyse and target certain users with ad-hoc created campaigns. The usage of this data was known as “data points manipulation” and has been condemned by a number of federal organs in the US, resulting in a billion dollars fine to Zuckerberg’s company. This was just the surface of what CA was doing in regards to American and British data.

The Process: In Simple Terms

Let’s say you voted for the Brexit campaign. Many of the people who were interviewed after the vote in 2016 (remember that the scandal was “uncovered” in 2018) said that “they’ve seen an ad which promoted funds to the NHS for over £300.000 per week”. This ad, upon investigation, resulted in being an ad-hoc creation from Cambridge Analytica, that also stated how their targeted audience was generated upon studying data points directly sold to them by Facebook. One representative of the infamous company, in fact, was in direct contact with Facebook’s data branch and was illegally buying data points which were then used to create audience models internally before running the campaigns. Within a single year’s timespan, the company was in possession of over 89% of the world’s data points, which is pretty insane if you think about it: that basically means that there were over 5 billion people’s data in one single physical space.

The Scandal: From Facebook’s Fines To GDPR

The FCC and the Congress condemned Facebook to pay a fine of over $1 billion and Cambridge Analytica was shut down in 2018, which is not big news and was brilliantly covered in the Netflix documentary “The Great Hack“. These fines were described by Zuckerberg as “totally right” since (apparently) he was totally out of the buying process and he stated multiple times how “he didn’t know about it”. In Europe, the fines weren’t the last word on the episode. In fact, the EU decided to create a specific series of laws in order to make data gathering and processing completely transparent. These laws are called GDPR and they have been set into place from May 2018. Even if they’re still being changed as we speak, the GDPR has set into place common practices such as a full enclosure when you land on a website: “We use cookies to ensure proper navigation and experience throughout our site” has become quite a common phrase which many didn’t understand before the Cambridge Analytica scandal was made public.

The Market Value of Data

After the CA scandal, data as a whole has been estimated as the most valuable asset on Earth, even higher than gold and oil. This is because, with modern technology and with automation features available pretty much for everyone, if your business can properly harvest data, it will most likely optimise a number of marketing processes. The value of data, in fact, started to grow after companies realised that, if done legally, it could have improved the vast majority of digital marketing processes, ranging from SEO to paid social ads and many more. With this in mind, analysing data and harvesting it is definitely not simple and the professional figure of the “data scientist” is still the most requested in a business world which, now more than ever, is moving towards technological applications and strategies.

How Can Businesses Use Data Legally?

The usage of data and its legislations are changed mostly on a monthly basis, with companies forced to admin data as a standalone branch nowadays. In order to use data legally and respectfully in regards to your users, you must fully disclose how and why you’re harvesting data, both on desktop and on mobile. Speaking of mobile, in fact, a team of app developers in the UK (recently elected as the European powerhouse for technology and data) said that the vast majority of businesses who adapted to GDPR completely forgot about their mobile side of things, which currently may amount for over 60% of their overall traffic. Not following GDPR guidelines may cost a company thousands and thousands in fines and legal processes, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to optimise such data acquisition quickly.

To Conclude

It’s definitely safe to say that the Cambridge Analytica scandal will be studied in many economics and technology degrees in the next 30 years since it opened data as a topic for marketing and business purposes to the mainstream. With dozens and dozens of companies investing in the matter, the infamous “case” will become the foundation of the contemporary internet (or internet 3.0), the one, to reference, which is based around data and users management. Together with automation, data will be remembered as the biggest business revolution after the email.