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Cambridge Analytica Scandal & Ethics of Micro-targeting and Big-Data

Published: 14th Feb, 2019

A watershed moment in case of personal data and data breach came about in early 2018, when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested and used personal data of over 87 million people's Facebook profiles, without their consent, for political purposes.



  • A watershed moment in case of personal data and data breach came about in early 2018, when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested and used personal data of over 87 million people's Facebook profiles, without their consent, for political purposes.
  • With the general elections in India on the anvil and increasing use of social media by the people and the political parties alike, the issue of big-data and data-mining becomes important.


The social media giant, Facebook, was founded by Mark Zuckerberg with a vision to connect people in 2004 and became the most popular social media company with over 2.19 billion active monthly users by early 2018. However, several security concerns marred its growth with time, one such being the Cambridge Analytica data breach issue. Cambridge Analytica (CA), a London-based elections consultancy firm, was one of the many data analytics companies which used data from social networking sites for academic research purposes. The data was allegedly used to micro-target the voters in favour of Donald Trump during the United States of America (USA) presidential elections of 2016. Further, the data was also used to turn the Brexit referendum in favour of ‘leave’ campaign and Mexican general elections in 2018.

The possible electoral manipulations through various surveys by the daughter companies of Cambridge Analytica is presently under scanner in India, too, as various political parties like Indian National Congress (INC), Janata Dal (United) (JDU), etc. have been clients of these companies.

Facebook, initially was defensive in approach and denied such breach. There was a lack of follow-up action by Facebook upon knowledge of use of data by third party such as Cambridge Analytica and lack of deletion of such data later on.

Later, Facebook founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologized for the breach of trust of the million users on account of the scandal and promised to take corrective measures towards data-protection.

How the scandal unfolded?

In 2010, Facebook came up with an update through which, external developers (third-party apps) could reach out to Facebook users and request permission to access their personal data and that of their friends. Then the third-party apps would use various quantitative instruments to probe the underlying traits that form the personality to micro-target people by providing them messages which resonated with their personality types more effectively (Echo-chamber effect). Cambridge Analytica collected personal data of people without their consent because of this update and used it for political purposes.


Ethical Issues associated with the Data Breach Scandal:

  1. Breach of trust of millions of Facebook users by compromising of their personal data and other issues like Data breach, Data privacy & Data protection, Crisis Management, Cyber Risk Assessments, Cyber Security, etc. at social media sites like Facebook.
  2. Profiling, micro-targeting of populace and electoral manipulations by the data analytic firms, and their effect on democratic choices that people make. Although, profiling is essential for organised data-set formulation and effective policy-making, ethical issue begins when one profiles for sensitive themes, regarding individual and group data protection, such as political affiliation, sexual orientation, or health. Such information has the potential for getting misused for political or criminal ends. In case of Cambridge Analytica, such sensitive information was collected without the consent of the people.
  3. Politics is the game of perception and phenomenon like fake news, filter bubble, echo-chambers, etc. are increasingly being used for electoral gains by the various political factions in all the countries alike, in today’s times.
  4. Nudging’ is another Nudges could be conscious or subconscious triggers and are used to elicit a certain response in people. The phenomenon of nudging is used in marketing for manipulating consumer behaviour. The case in point went beyond nudging as sensitive data was used to manipulate people by using unconscious desires and psychological mechanisms undermining their personal freedom of choice. As per a Google’s ethicist, “if you control the menu, you control the choice, and if you control the choice, you control the behaviour”. Hence, the independent decision-making ability of the people was compromised without their consent or knowledge which could be termed as cerebral hacking of people.
  5. Loss of credibility of information, news and of scientific facts due to data manipulation and breaches like Cambridge Analytica’s. One of the biggest challenges of Facebook would be to regain the trust of its users and its reputation post the data breach.

Way Forward:

Political campaigning has become much more data-driven due to increasing role of cyber-space in our lives. However, the tech-companies should use data in a way that complies with the law. Politicians, also, must set an example by promoting data protection and not use data to manipulate the elections in their favour.

People’s perception of their privacy, security and protection of their data is very essential as demand for a strong data protection regime can only come from people’s end. Also, the socialisation process and education system has a role to play to infuse a strong sense of ethics in people.

The service provider, like Facebook, must have some obligations on them as well. The companies need to protect privacy by default and data protection should be the norm. The management of the companies need to have an ethical code to follow while using the public data for their organisational gains. The data-mining must not result in exploitation of people.

Data protection laws like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of Europe, to protect the personal data. India, also, has formed Justice BN Krishna Committee to formulate model data protection law. Privacy has been termed as a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution by the Supreme Court of India.

Concluding point:

Data is the new oil and data science is one of the most important field to influence the world that we live in and its role is going to increase further in future. It can help to empower the economy & democracy, but most importantly, it can lead to empowerment of people, improve transparency in politics and business. Its role in policy-making and making a better connected world cannot be undermined, however, protection of data is the clarion call of the time.

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