The Marketer’s Case Against Cambridge Analytica

By now, you’ve probably read about how digital analytics firm Cambridge Analytica acquired Facebook profile information from about 50 million people without their express permission.  Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s stealing.  And marketers should be outraged about it.

Since Cambridge Analytica used the information to benefit Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, the news has taken on a political cast.  For once, I will not get political.  Nevertheless, marketers should recognize this news as a teachable moment about why data privacy matters.

At first read, it may seem hard to understand what happened.  Here’s how it worked, according to the Times:

Researchers there [a center at Cambridge University that worked for Cambridge Analytica] had developed a technique to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook. The researchers paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would scrape some private information from their profiles and those of their friends, activity that Facebook permitted at the time.

In other words, the researchers gave a few people–270,000–some money to get access to their information.  They used those 270,000 to scrape profile information from a total of 50 million people, who did not give any permission whatsoever.

Since Cambridge Analytica scraped the information unseen and their clients used the information to power opaque campaigns in social media, it may seem harmless.  After all, no one got a credit card bill with thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges, which happens when hackers breach stores and banks.

It comes down to fairness.

Specifically, I think of something I learned years ago when I had a timeshare company as a client.  I spoke with owners (i.e. the people who owned shares, not the people who owned the properties), who genuinely liked their vacation ownership (per the preferred term).  They advocated timeshare properties to their friends.  And that’s where the trouble started.

My client offered shareowners a bonus for referrals, a common industry practice.  I don’t recall whether they paid the bonus for names and phone numbers alone or based on actual sales, nor do I recall the amount.  What I do recall is the satisfaction one shareowner felt when he told me that he sent my client his church’s congregational phone directory for them to mine for prospects.

“Friends, heaven is beautiful.  But have you seen Myrtle Beach?”

In my mind, the situation looks the same as Cambridge Analytica’s.  One person got paid, but he compromised hundreds of others who a) did not give permission and b) probably didn’t know why they got calls from a timeshare company.  Clearly, these kind of tactics will erode trust in and favorability for the brand.

Certainly, three minutes trying to get a timeshare salesman off the phone does not rise to the level of damage from a campaign to manipulate an election.  However, in terms of trying to show how marketers should not try to gather information, I think it fits the bill.

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