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Cambridge Analytica Showed Us the Dangers of ‘Academic Commercialism’ – The Nation


Universities are diving ever more deeply into academic commercialism. They prod their faculties and graduate students to convert nonprofit research—often heavily subsidized by taxpayers—into their own for-profit start-ups or collaborations with existing companies as fast as possible. That’s especially true in fields developing disruptive technologies of unprecedented power, such as extreme forms of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

But at what price, in terms of compromised public interests? As institutions, faculties, and graduate students become more eager to monetize revolutionary inventions, it’s not surprising they often fail to pause for rigorous ethical and safety analyses. Many give at least lip service to the idea of “public engagement” in discussions about how—although usually not whether—ethically fraught lines of innovation should be widely adopted. But they move so quickly to develop and market new technologies that it’s often too late for the kind of broadly participatory political deliberations about benefits and harms, and winners and losers, that the public has a right to demand. After all, the social and ecological consequences may affect us all.

Consider the Cambridge Analytica scandal that broke wide-open two years ago: a massive privacy breach that exposed tens of millions of people’s personal data from Facebook, which was then used to micro-target political messages to voters in the 2016 US presidential election. The media has mostly skewered Aleksandr Kogan, the young psychologist then at the University of Cambridge who made what has been widely condemned as a devil of a deal in 2014 between his own private start-up and Cambridge Analytica’s parent company. What happened at Cambridge before that deal, though, deserves more scrutiny. It suggests that the university, as an institution, and its Psychometrics Centre unwittingly provided cues for many of Kogan’s later missteps.

In fact, the university had highlighted the idea of psychological targeting in politics before Kogan was even hired. In 2011—the year before he arrived and about three years before he began working with Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group—Cambridge University published a news article reporting that researchers at the Psychometrics Centre were pursuing tantalizing new technical possibilities for psychologically targeting people in advertising.

The article focused on a new online marketing tool called LikeAudience, which could generate an average psychological and demographic profile of people who shared a particular “like” on Facebook, or identify Facebook “likes” that would appeal to people of a particular psycho-demographic profile. It noted that LikeAudience drew only from anonymized information from people using Facebook apps who had agreed to let their data be used for it. But there was no discussion of the obvious possibility that such methods, if one of the world’s oldest and most respected academic institutions continued to help refine and tacitly endorse them, might inspire abuses—for example, micro-targeting tools that could threaten fair and free elections. Instead, the university presented the psychological and demographic traits that LikeAudience revealed about typical Facebook fans of then-President Barack Obama and other political leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom as well, including Sarah Palin and then–UK Prime Minister David Cameron.





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