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How Cambridge Analytica works and turned ‘likes’ into political tool

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How Cambridge analytica works

The algorithm at the heart of the Facebook data breach sounds almost too dystopian to be real. It trawls through the most apparently trivial, throwaway postings –the “likes” users dole out as they browse the site – to gather sensitive personal information about sexual orientation, race, gender, even intelligence and childhood trauma. So exactly how cambridge analytica works and why it turned like in to a real world political tool.

A few dozen “likes” can give a strong prediction of which party a user will vote for, reveal their gender and whether their partner is likely to be a man or woman, provide powerful clues about whether their parents stayed together throughout their childhood and predict their vulnerability to substance abuse. And it can do all this without delving into personal messages, posts, status updates, photos or all the other information Facebook holds.

how cambridge analytica works

Some results may sound more like the result of updated online sleuthing than sophisticated data analysis; “liking” a political campaign page is little different from pinning a poster in a window.

But five years ago psychology researchers showed that far more complex traits could be deduced from patterns invisible to a human observer scanning through profiles. Just a few apparently random “likes” could form the basis for disturbingly complex character assessments.

When users liked “curly fries” and Sephora cosmetics, this was said to give clues to intelligence; Hello Kitty likes indicated political views; “Being confused after waking up from naps” was linked to sexuality. These were just some of the unexpected but consistent correlations noted in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal in 2013. “Few users were associated with ‘likes’ explicitly revealing their attributes. For example, less than 5% of users labelled as gay were connected with explicitly gay groups, such as No H8 Campaign,” the peer-reviewed research found.

The researchers, Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell and Thore Graepel, saw the dystopian potential of the study and raised privacy concerns. At the time Facebook “likes” were public by default.


Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: ‘We spent $1m harvesting millions of Facebook profiles’ How Cambridge Analytica works.

“The predictability of individual attributes from digital records of behaviour may have considerable negative implications, because it can easily be applied to large numbers of people without their individual consent and without them noticing,” they said.

“Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even your Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation or political views that an individual may not have intended to share.”

To some, that may have sounded like a business opportunity. By early 2014, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix had signed a deal with one of Kosinski’s Cambridge colleagues, lecturer Aleksandr Kogan, for a private commercial venture, separate from Kogan’s duties at the university, but echoing Kosinski’s work.

The academic had developed a Facebook app which featured a personality quiz, and Cambridge Analytica paid for people to take it, advertising on platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The app recorded the results of each quiz, collected data from the taker’s Facebook account – and, crucially, extracted the data of their Facebook friends as well.

The results were paired with each quiz-taker’s Facebook data to seek out patterns and build an algorithm to predict results for other Facebook users. Their friends’ profiles provided a testing ground for the formula and, more crucially, a resource that would make the algorithm politically valuable.

How Cambridge Analytica works

To be eligible to take the test the user had to have a Facebook account and be a US voter, so tens of millions of the profiles could be matched to electoral rolls. From an initial trial of 1,000 “seeders”, the researchers obtained 160,000 profiles – or about 160 per person. Eventually a few hundred thousand paid test-takers would be the key to data from a vast swath of US voters.

It was extremely attractive. It could also be deemed illicit, primarily because Kogan did not have permission to collect or use data for commercial purposes. His permission from Facebook to harvest profiles in large quantities was specifically restricted to academic use. And although the company at the time allowed apps to collect friend data, it was only for use in the context of Facebook itself, to encourage interaction. Selling data on, or putting it to other purposes, – including Cambridge Analytica’s political marketing – was strictly barred.

It also appears likely the project was breaking British data protection laws, which ban sale or use of personal data without consent. That includes cases where consent is given for one purpose but data is used for another.

The paid test-takers signed up to T&Cs, including collection of their own data, and Facebook’s default terms allowed their friends’ data to be collected by an app, unless their privacy settings allowed this. But none of them agreed to their data possibly being used to create a political marketing tool or to it being placed in a vast campaign database.

How Cambridge Analytica works

Kogan maintains everything he did was legal and says he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.

Facebook denies this was a data breach. Vice-president Paul Grewal said: “Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules.”

Graphic to show key players in Cambridge Analytica story

The scale of the data collection Cambridge Analytica paid for was so large it triggered an automatic shutdown of the app’s ability to harvest profiles. But Kogan told a colleague he “spoke with an engineer” to get the restriction lifted and, within a day or two, work resumed.

Within months, Kogan and Cambridge Analytica had a database of millions of US voters that had its own algorithm to scan them, identifying likely political persuasions and personality traits. They could then decide who to target and craft their messages that was likely to appeal to them – a political approach known as “micro-targeting”.

Facebook announced on Friday that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and Kogan from the platform pending information over misuse of data related to this project.

Facebook denies that the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by GSR and Cambridge Analytica was a data breach. It said in a statement that Kogan “gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels” but “did not subsequently abide by our rules” because he passed the information onto third parties.

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Inside JD.com, the giant Chinese firm that could eat Amazon alive

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Pujiang Pu is a smiley, medium-built man in his mid-forties with stylish glasses, a bling gold watch, and a red JD lanyard around his neck. Along with many of the 150,000 employees of JD.com – a city-size e-commerce store sometimes referred to as the Amazon of China – he lives in a free dorm near one of the company’s 500 gigantic warehouses. The warehouse I visit is in Jiading, 30km north-west of Shanghai’s city centre. Hundreds of people work here, and at 100,000 square metres in size it sits on a JD complex so big it would take at least 45 minutes to walk from one end to the other.

I am allowed here as part of a rare, highly supervised press visit, and warehouse manager Pu is our tour guide. I am not shown everything, but enough to impress – or, as some analysts believe, to show that JD is a kind of company Amazon ultimately wants to become.

JD wasn’t always that big. It started out as a small brick and mortar store in Beijing, founded in 1998 by Richard Liu. Then in 2004, Liu moved it online and JD.com, short for Jingdong, was born. Fast-forward to today, and the firm is worth more than $55 billion. In February, logistics magazine DC Velocity called it “the biggest company you may not know all that much about”. Not for much longer though – JD is so growing so fast at home in China and expanding so rapidly into other markets such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam and most recently Europe, that even the most devout Amazonians will soon sit up and notice.

The main reason Pu stays in a dorm on site, and away from his family, is to ensure he can meet key performance indicators set by the firm. Sometimes, especially during JD.com’s annual shopping event, he has to work late into the night.

But the future of these dorms is uncertain. Many traditional warehouse jobs like stacking shelves and packing boxes at JD are likely to go to robots in the coming years, as the company starts to automate everything that can sensibly be automated. The tech giant is now busy retraining some staff to take on new roles that machines can’t yet do. Pu’s warehouses have some of the firm’s most advanced robotics – and he gets really excited talking about the autonomous forklift trucks and delivery drones.

These drones have been in the news a lot lately. Remember when Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos made claims that his firm would soon drop parcels off at your doorstep? Well, that was in 2013 – and, some small-scale trials aside, it’s still not happening. But it’s very much happening at JD – since March 2016, its drones have been delivering products across China, having clocked over 300,000 minutes of flight time. “Today we have over 200 people working on our drone programme,” says Zheng Cui, director of the firm’s drone R&D centre in Xi’an.

The drones come in various shapes and sizes, but the quickest ones can fly up to 100km/h and have a range of 100km. So far though, the furthest delivery has been 15km and that drone flew much slower than 100km/h – but you have to start somewhere. What the drones can’t do yet, JD does with its 65,000 van drivers and couriers.

The drone efforts haven’t gone unnoticed though, and other companies are keen to replicate JD’s air delivery success. Cui says more and more firms are getting in touch to buy their drones. “We’ve just got an order for 1,000 at the beginning of this year,” he adds.

Those drones are still fairly small, but JD is busy developing larger ones that can carry up to five tonnes. “They’ll transfer inventory from one warehouse to another,” says Cui. “Within three years we’re looking at having a couple of thousand,” he says – and they will take off right from existing small airports near the company’s warehouses.

It’s not just the drones that make the Chinese behemoth different from Western e-commerce stores, though. Robots at JD are everywhere. In the warehouse I visit, machines stack tens of thousands of products on 24-metre-high shelves. Over the road from where I am, another fully automated warehouse can pack and ship 200,000 products a day. Robots are not alone yet, though: the fully automated warehouse has four human helpers.

Automation, growth, scale – the mega but still relatively unknown giant seems unlikely to slow down. Its revenues are growing 40 per cent a year, up to $55.7 billion in 2017. The company’s spokespeople tell us proudly the firm is the third largest “internet company” in the world by revenue after Google and Amazon, but ahead of companies like Facebook, eBay and Alibaba, its biggest rival.

It has major backers such as Tencent — the largest internet company in China by market cap and the owner of WeChat. Other investors are Walmart, which has a ten per cent stake, and even Google, which last month announced it was investing $550 million into JD to help it expand further outside China.

And the e-commerce giant is busy doing just that. In January, it opened its first European office, in Paris. It now aims to open another one in Milan, and is actively partnering with Spanish and other European brands – especially luxury ones. In 2017, Chinese made up 32 per cent of the worldwide luxury market.

JD’s response: last October, it launched Toplife, a platform for luxury buyers that can benefit from same-day deliveries and premium services, such as ultra-clean and secure warehouses with special air filters. Over just a few months, Toplife has already signed up 20 brands, including Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. Amazon beware.

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LG G7 ThinQ Is Now Available In the US for $750

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LG waited longer than normal to announce its big 2018 flagship phone, but it finally took the wraps off the LG G7 ThinQ a few weeks ago. Today, the phone is available for purchase on most US carriers. While LG has had trouble competing with the likes of Samsung, it’s still targeting the same premium space. Although, it’s got an iPhone-style screen notch now. That’s what consumers want, right?

The LG G7 ThinQ is the epitome of all things 2018 in smartphone design. It has a glass back, dual cameras, and a display notch that isn’t done particularly well. The missing bit of screen provides a place for the camera, earpiece, and some other sensors. It does seem a little excessively large for how compact these components are, though. In addition, the G7 has a “chin” at the bottom with a larger bezel than the top and bottom. This asymmetric look isn’t as striking as the iPhone X it imitates. The 6.1-inch 1440p display is also an OLED, which lacks the vibrancy of modern OLED panels.

Inside, this phone has all the current flagship hardware you’d expect with a Snapdragon 845, 64GB of storage, and 4GB of RAM. Unlike many other current smartphones, the company has opted to keep the headphone jack for the G7 ThinQ. LG also touts the G7’s unique speaker design that uses the entire chassis as a resonator to boost sound output.

You may be wondering about the name — specifically the “ThinQ” bit. Well, that’s LG’s expanded brand for all its AI technologies. What that means for the G7 is that there’s an AI mode in the camera that looks for objects it can identify and offers possible filters. It’s not very accurate or useful, but LG didn’t even develop any AI software or hardware for this phone. It just licensed a machine vision library from a third-party.

The LG G7 ThinQ is available from all major carriers in the US except AT&T. Apparently, AT&T chose to sell the LG V35 instead of the G7. This marks the third variant of the V30 that LG has sold since it debuted last year. At other carriers, the G7 ThinQ will run you $750, give or take a few dollars. Carriers offer payment plans to split the cost over two years. It will launch on Google’s Project Fi soon, as well. If you don’t want to go through carriers, the phone is also available from Amazon.

 

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