Much of the media and government attention toward the Cambridge Analytica scandal has been centered around the firm itself or Mark Zuckerberg. Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University academic who created the app that helped the data analysis firm obtain the personal information of as many as 87 million Facebook users, has been relatively silent as the incident has unfolded.
Kogan finally weighed in on the issue at length on Sunday (April 22), through interviews with BuzzFeed and CBS’ 60 Minutes. In addition to lamenting how some news outlets have focused on his Russian heritage (he holds a US passport), Kogan downplayed concerns that his data harvesting for Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign, could have had an impact on the 2016 presidential race.
“Folks are only concerned right now about the story because they think it could have swung the elections or that they can be mind controlled, and that’s not a real worry,” he told BuzzFeed, adding that the idea that the firm’s behavior prediction is that effective is “nonsense.”
Kogan did, however, state that he sensed what Cambridge Analytica wanted the Facebook data for when they hired him to create the app “thisisyourdigitallife,” a personality quiz which surreptitiously collected the personal information of both its users and its users’ Facebook friends. “I knew it was going to be for elections… And I had an understanding or a feeling that it was going to be for the Republican side,” he told CBS.
Kogan says the notion that he “stole” user data is “technically incorrect.” In his view, while he violated Facebook’s terms of service by providing the data he harvested to a third party, he was hardly the only developer to do that.
“I think there’s utility [to Facebook] to trying to tell the narrative that this is a special case that I was a rogue app, and this was really unusual. Because if the truth is told, and this is pretty usual and normal, it’s a much bigger problem,” Kogan told CBS. He told CBS there must be “tens of thousands” of developers who harvested data the way he did.
Kogan did express remorse for underestimating how the public felt about its data being collected and used in ways they didn’t realize. “I think that core idea that we had—that everybody knows and nobody cares—was fundamentally flawed. And so if that idea is wrong, then what we did was not right and was not wise. And for that, I’m sincerely sorry,” he told the broadcaster.
In response to the Kogan’s 60 Minutes interview, Cambridge Analytica released a statement claiming that the data Kogan harvested “underperformed” compared to more traditional demographic data, and added that it did not use Kogan’s data for its work on 2016 presidential campaigns for Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.
Kogan is set to appear before a British parliamentary committee investigating the Cambridge Analytical scandal on April 24, while Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who revealed the misuse of Facebook user data, will be appearing soon before the US Congress.