Personal data from millions of users of a popular personality quiz on Facebook have been leaked, according to a new investigation. Users’ answers to intimate questionnaires were left exposed and could be accessed by anyone online.
More the 6 million people have used myPersonality app and took real psychometric tests. They would then obtain their results instantly. They would also have the option of sharing data from their Facebook profiles with the project, with around 40% of respondents deciding to do so. It resulted in creation of one of the largest social science research databases in history.
According to investigation conducted by the magazine New Scientist, the data sets were controlled by the academics at the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, who distributed it to hundreds of researchers. However, the website — via which personal data was shared — had insufficient security provisions. It led to sensitive information, such as results of psychological tests, being left vulnerable to hackers or any user who would breach the security barriers. According to the investigations, “gaining access illicitly was relatively easy.”
More than 280 people from nearly 150 institutions had access to the full data set, including researchers at universities and at companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. All one had to do is to register as a collaborator to the project.
“However, for those who were not entitled to access the data set because they didn’t have a permanent academic contract, for example, there was an easy workaround. For the last four years, a working username and password has been available online that could be found from a single web search. Anyone who wanted access to the data set could have found the key to download it in less than a minute,” according to the New Scientist.
The username-password combination was kept on the code-sharing website GitHub and had been shared by a university lecturer with students working on a project related to Facebook data processing.
Cambridge Analytica Link
Among people in control of the personal data of millions of Facebook users were academics Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, as well as Alexander Kogan, who would later be found in the middle of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“Stillwell and Kosinski were both part of a spin-out company called Cambridge Personality Research, which sold access to a tool for targeting adverts based on personality types, built on the back of the myPersonality data sets. The firm’s website described it as the tool that ‘mind-reads audiences’,” the New Scientist reports.
Facebook started the investigation into myPersonality as part of a wider investigation into apps using the platform. The action was triggered by the allegations, emerging in 2018, over how Cambridge Analytica accessed data from an app called This Is Your Digital Life developed by Kogan.
myPersonality application was created in 2007 and was active in 2012. Relatively easy access to data results meant personal information, including on people’s characteristics, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism, had been exposed. Twenty-two million status updates from over 150,000 users, as well as details such as age, gender and relationship status from 4.3 million people, had also been insufficiently protected.