World

Cambridge researcher says Canadian whistleblower in Facebook data scandal was 'duplicitous'

A researcher at the centre of a scandal over the alleged misuse of the data of nearly 100 million Facebook users said on Tuesday that the work he did was not useful for micro-targeted advertisements.

Aleksandr Kogan tells U.K. parliamentary committee his dataset wouldn't aid microtargeting

Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher at Cambridge University who created a personality quiz to collect users data on Facebook, gives evidence to Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee Tuesday in Westminster, London. (Parliament TV handout via Reuters)

A researcher at the centre of a scandal over the alleged misuse of the data of nearly 100 million Facebook users said on Tuesday the work he did was not useful for micro-targeted advertisements that would be needed to sway an election.

Aleksandr Kogan, who worked for the University of Cambridge, is at the centre of a controversy over Cambridge Analytica's use of millions of users' data without their permission after it was hired by Donald Trump for his 2016 election campaign.

Kogan, whose curriculum vitae includes a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto in 2011-12, said the dataset he compiled would be of little help for targeted advertising. The data that was obtained would not be useful for identifying individuals, he said.

"I believe the project we did makes little to no sense if the goal is to run targeted ads on Facebook," he said in written testimony to a parliamentary committee. "In fact, the platform's tools provide companies a far more effective pathway to target people based on their personalities than using scores from users from our work."

Facebook has said that the personal information of about 87 million users may have been improperly shared with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, after Kogan created a personality quiz app to collect the data. 

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have blamed Kogan for alleged data misuse, but he has said that he was being made a scapegoat by the companies for the scandal. Cambridge Analytica will later address Kogan's remarks at a briefing.

Cambridge Analytica is also under scrutiny over campaigning for the 2016 referendum when Britons voted to leave the European Union.

Kogan said that former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, who was also a director of the consultancy's parent firm SCL Group, had previously lied to lawmakers when he said he had not received data from Kogan.

"We certainly gave them data, that's indisputable," Kogan told lawmakers.

Asked if Nix had lied, Kogan answered: "Absolutely."

Kogan also took exception with statements made in recent weeks by B.C. native Christopher Wylie, who worked for SCL and helped launch Cambridge Analytica before leaving the political consulting company in 2014. Wylie, from Victoria, has helped draw attention in recent weeks to the harvesting of data from Facebook by speaking to the New York Times and Britain's the Observer on how he created tools exploited by the Trump campaign team.

Kogan said the whistleblower "invents many things" and was "duplicitous" in his dealings with SCL.

For his part, Kogan hired a market research firm called Qualtrics to recruit 200,000 to 300,000 people to take the quiz to collect the data, resulting in expenses of $600,000-$800,000. Kogan's company was paid 230,000 pounds ($412,300 Cdn) by SCL for its predictive analysis based on the findings, he said.

Chris Wylie, the Canadian formerly with Cambridge Analytica, helped lift the lid on how Facebook data was gathered without users' knowledge to help sway voters in the U.S. election. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE)

However he added that he thought it was unlikely that SCL used the data for the Trump campaign, after he heard that it had not yielded good results when it was deployed in Republican candidate Ted Cruz's campaign.

Kogan said that he never drew a salary from GSR, the company that he founded to do the research that was wound up last year. Most of the money received from SCL was spent on coding work, acquiring data and legal fees. He was allowed to keep the data he gathered on the project.

Kogan said that GSR had a close relationship with Facebook, and one of his partners at the firm, Joseph Chancellor, now worked for the social media giant.

With files from CBC News

now