Case study: Facebook - Cambridge Analytica data breach

This blog is about a famous data breach scandal by Cambridge Analytica, a UK based IT consulting firm which collected private data of millions of Facebook users and used in political advertising.


2021-08-08 3 min read

Hello There!!

Welcome to another blog post!

In this blog, we will put a light on the largest ever data breach which compromises confidential data of 87 million Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica, a UK based IT consulting firm which collected private data of millions of Facebook users without their approval and utilized those data in political advertising.

Facebook says data leak hits 87 million users, widening privacy scandal:

Facebook Inc said on that the personal information of up to 87 million users, mostly in the United States, may have been improperly shared with UK based political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, that Cambridge Analytica began collecting from 2014.

Cambridge Analytica says it only collected 30 million Facebook user profiles.

Let's start from the beginning:

How did that happen?

Aleksandr Kogan, a data scientist at Cambridge University, developed an app called this is your digital life.

He provided the app to Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica in turn arranged an informed consent process for research in which several hundred thousand Facebook users would agree to complete a survey only for academic use.

However, Facebook's design allowed this app to collect the personal information of all the people in those users' Facebook social network. In this way Cambridge Analytica acquired data for millions of Facebook users.

How the personal information used?

Dr. Kogan, though his company Global Science Research, sold Facebook users’ information to the political data firm Cambridge Analytica.

It used the information to create an exacting personality prediction tool, and to create highly specific advertisements designed to influence individual voters.

The information was allegedly used in the 2016 US election as part of Donald Trump’s campaign.

Did Facebook know about the data breach?

Yes. Facebook discovered Cambridge Analytica had purchased users’ information in 2015.

It banned the app responsible and asked Dr. Kogan and Cambridge Analytica to delete it.

Mr. Zuckerberg now says Facebook’s failure to warn users their personal details had been exploited was a “mistake,” as was failing to check the information had been destroyed.

How Facebook responded?

Facebook sent a message to these users believed to be affected, saying the information likely included one's "public profile, page likes, birthday and current city". Some of the app's users gave the app permission to access their News Feed, timeline, and messages.

Facebook director Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the situation with Cambridge Analytica, calling it an "issue, a "mistake" and a "breach of trust." Other Facebook officials argued against calling it a "data breach", arguing those who took the personality quiz originally consented to giving away their information.

How other tech-giants responded?

Amazon said that they suspended Cambridge Analytica from using their Amazon Web Services when they learned that their service was collecting personal information.

The governments of India and Brazil demanded that Cambridge Analytica report how anyone used data from the breach in political campaigning, and various regional governments in the United States have lawsuits in their court systems from citizens affected by the data breach.

How Facebook reacted?

Facebook says it’s hired a forensics team to investigate Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica says it’s conducting a third-party audit over Facebook data.

Facebook will limit developers’ access to account data.

Cambridge Analytica suspends its CEO after comments about bribery and entrapment.

Facebook won’t extend GDPR privacy protections beyond EU.

Facebook will no longer allow third-party data for ads.

Facebook is reducing its Android call history and SMS collection.

How the world reacted?

Facebook stock tanks after data breach report, shaving billions off company’s market value.

WhatsApp co-founder tells everyone to delete Facebook.

Elon Musk has removed Tesla and SpaceX’s Facebook pages.

Facebook is being investigated by New York and Massachusetts attorneys general over scandal.

The FTC confirms it’s investigating Facebook over its privacy practices.

UK seeks warrant to examine Cambridge Analytica servers.

UK committee asks Zuckerberg to testify on Facebook privacy failure.

Users affected by data breach 

People whose facebook data may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica

(photo copyright to respected owners)


Timeline of Facebook-Cambridge analytica data breach incident

(photo copyright to respected owners)

Timeline of facebook cambridge analytica data breach incident

Check your facebook data

Check what data Facebook stores. You can download all your Facebook data by following the steps shown on the right side.

1. First, sign into Facebook (on a desktop browser, not your mobile). Then, click on Settings.

2. Navigate to General Account Settings.

3. Click on Download a copy of your Facebook data option.

4. Click on Start My Archive.


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