Cambridge Analytica: What role for the University as researcher at centre of scandal admits ‘I should have questioned the ethics of the exercise’?

While Aleksandr Kogan says he is being unfairly scapegoated by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, the researcher at the heart of the data harvesting scandal admits that he could have asked more questions before conducting the research.

The Guardian and CNN are reporting this week that Kogan, a researcher affiliated with Cambridge University, claims he was not working in the belief that his work would be used to target voters in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. He also insists that he believed the exercise was legal.

“They [Cambridge Analytica] communicated that this would be a fully commercial project and that terms of service would be ones that allowed a broad licence for usage…We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the limits of the terms of service. One of the great mistakes I did here was that I just didn’t ask enough questions.’

Since Kogan was working in a private capacity for Cambridge Analytica, Cambridge University believes it has no case to answer for  his work. In response to an article in this week a spokesperson for the University said:

‘Researchers are [] permitted to undertake academic research outside the university provided it does not interfere with the performance of their duties. We understand that Dr Kogan correctly sought permission from his Head of Department at the time to work with St Petersburg University; it was understood that this work and any associated grants would be in a private capacity, separate to his work at the University of Cambridge.

‘The University of Cambridge takes matters of research integrity and data protection extremely seriously. We have to date found no evidence to contradict Dr Kogan’s previous assurances. Nevertheless, we are writing to Facebook to request all relevant evidence in their possession.’

What, if anything, could a university ethics panel have done to prevent Kogan’s work from being used by Cambridge Analytica? Perhaps nothing, if the company was working within Facebook’s own parameters. However if, as Kogan himself admits, he had viewed his project through an ethical lens to begin with, perhaps he might have had reservations of his own. Researchers all over the world are using social media data for research purposes, and they are doing so legally within the user terms of agreement. And yet, in some of the case studies featured on this website, such as Consent Manager or Tracking Social Processes on Twitter,  individual researchers are expressing concerns about the protection of citizen’s data beyond the life of their own research projects.

It’s time for higher education and research institutes to get serious about developing not just data privacy protection rules, but meaningful data ethics standards that immerse all data researchers in ethical thinking at the research design phase and throughout their research careers. We need to listen to the researchers themselves and feed their insights up the chain.



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