Cambridge researcher behind Facebook data breach speaks out

The Russia spy rumor is a "preposterous claim that has no backing."

April 23, 2018, 8:44 AM

Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University researcher who collected information on millions of Americans through Facebook, said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to lawmakers on Capitol Hill was "misleading."

In a live interview with ABC's chief anchor George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America," Kogan responded to Zuckerberg's accusation that he violated Facebook policy by sharing data with a third party, Cambridge Analytica.

"I think they're being a little misleading," Kogan told Stephanopoulos on Monday. "The idea that this was a hack is flat-out wrong."

He continued, "Imagine a warehouse: we didn't break in -- we went on Amazon and ordered the data, and they delivered it to us. This is a key feature of their system."

In March, Kogan found himself at the center of a burgeoning scandal after former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie told The New York Times that Kogan shared data he had harvested through an app with the controversial political research firm in 2014 without users’ knowledge.

In an interview last month with ABC News, Wylie suggested he was suspicious of Kogan's work because of the researcher's Russian roots and connections.

"I think that it's really concerning that...the head psychologist that we were using, Aleksandr Kogan, was working on a Russian funded project in Russia on psychological profiling of people," Wylie said.

Kogan denied allegations that he was acting on behalf of Russia, saying, "I think a lot of that is xenophobic nonsense to me, to be frank. I had a loose affiliation with a university there and went and gave a few talks there, but nothing more."

"Most Russians, just like most Americans, are normal, decent folk [and] have nothing to do with spycraft," Kogan added.

Kogan, 31, was born in Moldova – then a Soviet state — and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 7 years old, ultimately settling in New Jersey. He graduated with honors from UC Berkley in 2008 with a degree in psychology, the university confirmed to ABC News. Later, he held an honorary associate professorship from the St. Petersburg State University in Russia, which he said entailed two or three trips to the university.

When asked if he had anything to do with Russian interference in the U.S. election, he replied, "I think it's honestly a preposterous claim that has no backing and absolutely not."

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica both face investigations from federal authorities in the U.S. and U.K. and have been called to appear before both Congress and Parliament to answer questions from government officials.

When asked if people have a right to be angry about the breach, Kogan said, "Oh absolutely, but I think it has nothing to do wit this transfer of data idea."

"I think it has everything to do with how tech companies have been running for a long time in terms of using data," Kogan argued, "because the fundamental business model here is we're going to take your data and use it for whichever way we want to try to sell you things and that's just the business norm and I think that's what's really upsetting."

According to Kogan, Wylie approached him in 2014 about adapting his app -- originally designed for academic research -- to give Cambridge Analytica access to the data from millions of Facebook users. Kogan said Wylie and lawyers for Cambridge Analytica's parent company SCL assured him that the app could be adapted for commercial use without violating Facebook's rules.

Cambridge Analytica was retained by the Trump campaign ahead of the 2016 election, and scrutiny of that relationship led to the revelations that have put Kogan and Wylie back in the spotlight.

Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica and Kogan from the platform pending an investigation into the breach of millions of user profiles. Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing and blamed Kogan for violating Facebook's privacy terms, while Kogan has claimed both companies are treating him “unfairly.”

Both Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign have said the Facebook data obtained at that time was not used as part of that work the data firm did on behalf of the campaign. In a statement released ahead of an interview with Kogan on CBS’ "60 Minutes" on Sunday, the company said it deleted the data at Facebook’s request and never shared it with any other party.

Facebook's Zuckerberg already spent two days answering questions from lawmakers earlier this month on Facebook's user data policy that failed to stop the breach.

Now, it’s Kogan’s turn. He will face questions from members of Parliament in a hearing on Tuesday.

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