Dig­i­tal tres­passes

Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica row high­lights data ethics

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE -

The Univer­sity of Cam­bridge has been ac­cused of wash­ing its hands of the con­duct of a re­searcher at the cen­tre of a Face­book data-har­vest­ing scan­dal, in a case that raises wider ques­tions about in­sti­tu­tions’ re­spon­si­bil­ity for aca­demics’ out­side ac­tiv­i­ties.

Alek­sandr Ko­gan, a cog­ni­tive and be­havioural neu­ro­science re­searcher, used a Face­book quiz app to gather pro­file in­for­ma­tion from 30 mil­lion Face­book users. He then passed these data to Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, a com­pany ac­cused of us­ing this in­for­ma­tion to tar­get vot­ers on­line in an at­tempt to sway the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in favour of Don­ald Trump, a claim it de­nies.

Dr Ko­gan’s method of data har­vest­ing is par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial be­cause the app was able to gather in­for­ma­tion not only from those who chose to use it but also from their Face­book friends, who were not ex­plic­itly asked to con­sent. Face­book has said that it stopped apps col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion from friends so eas­ily in 2014.

Bill Cooke, a pro­fes­sor of strate­gic man­age­ment at the Univer­sity of York who has a long-stand­ing in­ter­est in busi­ness ethics, wrote to Cam­bridge in 2015 to ask it to in­ves­ti­gate Dr Ko­gan af­ter re­ports first sur­faced that Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica had ob­tained a huge cache of Face­book user data and was work­ing with con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal fig­ures in the US.

In re­sponse, the univer­sity told him that the data gath­er­ing was “not un­der­taken at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge. Dr Ko­gan’s in­volve­ment in the mat­ter re­lated to his role in a pri­vate com­pany.”

In light of the lat­est sto­ries about Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, the univer­sity has dis­tanced it­self from Dr Ko­gan’s ac­tiv­i­ties. “The univer­sity and Dr Ko­gan have made clear that Dr Ko­gan’s work with GSR Ltd [Dr Ko­gan’s com­pany] was un­der­taken in a pri­vate ca­pac­ity and in his ca­pac­ity as a di­rec­tor of the com­pany. GSR Ltd was, there­fore, re­spon­si­ble for the over­sight of the re­search in­tegrity mat­ters aris­ing from the process to col­lect data from Face­book users by GSR,” a univer­sity spokesman told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

This re­sponse is “in­ad­e­quate”, said Pro­fes­sor Cooke. “It failed to ad­dress [ the univer­sity’s] own re­search code of prac­tice, which says that even if mem­bers [of staff] are do­ing work out­side they are still ac­count­able,” he said.

Re­searchers must abide by ethics rules even for “re­search un­der­taken by univer­sity em­ploy­ees out­side the univer­sity and over­seas”, ac­cord­ing to Cam­bridge’s ethics pol­icy for per­sonal data. “Ex­cept where the na­ture of the re­search or par­tic­i­pants makes this im­pos­si­ble, free and in­formed con­sent must be ob­tained from all par­tic­i­pants in re­search at an ap­pro­pri­ate point in the re­search process,” the pol­icy states.

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