President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign mined supporters’ personal data from Facebook to benefit its voter turnout program. But former campaign officials said Wednesday they accessed and used the information in vastly different ways than Cambridge Analytica, the firm connected to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign accused of improperly lifting data on 50 million Facebook users.
Former Obama advisers said they collected the data with their own app, complied with the social media platform’s terms of service and received permission from supporters. An estimated 1 million Obama supporters gave the campaign access to their Facebook data.
In most cases, Obama supporters who signed on to the campaign’s mailing list were asked to authorize the campaign’s Facebook app, allowing it to access certain aspects of their profile, including their posts, likes, photos, demographics and similar data from their Facebook friends. The Obama data was used in voter turnout efforts, with a focus on young voters in key battleground states, and former campaign officials said the data was kept secure and not sold to or acquired from third parties.
Ex-Obama aides said their practices did not mirror those of Cambridge Analytica, which has been accused of acquiring personal data in unauthorized ways. The British political research firm has suspended CEO Alexander Nix pending an investigation.
“Cambridge Analytica obtained their data fraudulently, laundered through a researcher,” Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, wrote on Twitter. Messina said the re-election campaign “told voters what they were sharing and for what purpose. Conflating these two cases is misleading.”
Trump’s campaign has said it didn’t use Cambridge’s data, and Cambridge has denied any wrongdoing. The incident has focused new attention on whether Facebook did enough to protect users’ privacy and has prompted calls for Facebook’s leadership to testify before Congress on how Cambridge harvested the data.
Carol Davidsen, who served as the Obama campaign’s director of data integration and media analytics, tweeted Sunday that Facebook allowed the campaign to access the data “because they were on our side.”
She said in a separate tweet that she had worked on all “data integration projects” at the campaign. “This was the only one that felt creepy, even though we played by the rules, and didn’t do anything I felt was ugly, with the data,” she wrote.
Facebook said in a statement that the tweet was inaccurate, adding that “both the Obama and Romney campaigns had access to the same tools, and no campaign received any special treatment from Facebook.”
Rayid Ghani, who was chief scientist on the Obama 2012 campaign, wrote in a Medium post that the campaign only contacted people who had provided them with access to their email address. “We did not get any contact information for their friend and did not (and could not) contact any of their friends directly,” he wrote. He said the campaign “did not scrape everything available on facebook about everyone we could.”
“All we could do was ask our ‘primary’ supporters to contact their friends and we would recommend who those friends were based on the data they allowed us to access,” Ghani said. Facebook “did not look the other way, because they did not need to,” he added.
The tech giant in 2015 shut down app developers’ ability to siphon off the data of Facebook users who used their apps.
Timothy Carone, a University of Notre Dame professor specializing in data science, said in an email that it’s unclear the 2012 Obama campaign could have done what Cambridge Analytica did in 2016, adding that would require a deeper dive into the 2012 campaign practices. “Four years is a long time in the analytics business and great strides have been made with how data is collected, analyzed, and used to make decisions in between campaigns,” he said.
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