Report: Russian Data Miner Worked Closely With Facebook

The Russian-American psychologist at the center of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal had a much closer relationship with the social network than recent Facebook statements would imply, including working with Facebook researchers on a study that involved 57 billion friendships formed on Facebook in 2011.

Credit: Twinsterphoto/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Twinsterphoto/Shutterstock)

"In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us," Facebook said in its first statement regarding the breaking scandal a week ago (March 16). "By passing information on to a third party ... he violated our platform policies."

But Kogan was no stranger to Facebook, and some of its own research scientists worked with him, the Washington Post discovered.

MORE: The Quick and Dirty Facts About Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

In 2015, Kogan — using his married surname of "Spectre" — co-authored a research paper on the correlation between social class and friendships across international borders. Two of Kogan's co-authors were Facebook staffers; the others were affiliated with U.C. Berkeley, Harvard and Cambridge, where Kogan holds a position as a research associate.

"Facebook provided data on every friendship formed in 2011 in every country in the world at the national aggregate level," the paper stated. "These data set included a total of 57,457,192,520 friendships."

Facebook didn't grant Kogan and his associates full access to all the accounts involved, but rather "only the macro-level, national sums."

The research and the resulting paper, entitled "On wealth and the diversity of friendships: High social class people around the world have fewer international friends," were funded by Britain's Economic and Social Research Council and Saint Petersburg State University in Russia.

Kogan reportedly holds an academic position in Saint Petersburg, although that affiliation is not listed on his biographical page on the University of Cambridge website. Chrisopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica contractor who told The New York Times and The Observer about Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook data, said Kogan frequently traveled to Russia.

The study is not believed to be directly connected to the survey app that Kogan created in 2013 or 2014 for his company, Global Science Research. Data scraped by that app from Facebook was allegedly later sold to Cambridge Analytica, the American company set up to work on U.S. political campaigns.

But some of the methods used to collect the data were the same. Both GSR and the friendship study used Amazon's Mechanical Turk piecemeal-work program to pay Facebook users $1 or $2 to take a short survey that then gathered data about their Facebook friends. That kind of research was the first phase of the friendship study; the data provided by Facebook about the 57 billion friendships was part of the second phase.

The Washington Post noted that the inclusion of Facebook researchers in the study may have been mandatory. In order to get access to huge amounts of Facebook data, a social psychologist told the newspaper, researchers are required to partner with Facebook directly.

It's not clear why Kogan's data-scraping app that resulted in the Cambridge Analytica data set was not subject to similar scrutiny.

For his part, Kogan says that everything he did concerning Facebook was above board, and that other parties in the scandal are using him to deflect blame away from themselves.

"My view is that I'm being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica," he told BBC Radio 4 earlier this week. "We thought we were doing something that was really normal. We were assured by Cambridge Analytica that everything was perfectly legal and within the terms of service."

According to Bloomberg News, Kogan, aka Spectre, is in his early 30s, was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, immigrated to the United States as a child, and holds dual Russian and American citizenship. He apparently now lives in the San Francisco area, and at one point he and his wife made up their own surname of "Spectre," which he still sometimes uses.

Kogan has quite a few international friendships himself: His Cambridge biography says he attended U.C. Berkeley as an undergraduate, got his doctorate at the University of Hong Kong, did post-doctoral work at the University of Toronto and now is at Cambridge.