Cambridge University saw 'no issue' with Facebook research

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

Image source, Reuters

The academic at the centre of Facebook's data scandal has hit back at Mark Zuckerberg's suggestion that "something bad" might be going on at Cambridge University.

Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who collected data for Cambridge Analytica, told the BBC that Facebook should be investigating commercial uses of its data, not focusing on academic research.

He also denied that fellow academics had had any "ethical issues" with his work for Cambridge Analytica.

On Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing that there were a number of Cambridge academics building similar apps to Dr Kogan's.

He said Facebook needed to know "whether there was something bad going on at Cambridge University".

Commercial purposes

In an email to the BBC, Dr Kogan said it was true that the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre had developed a personality quiz to collect Facebook data, and that the dataset was shared with academics around the world.

However, he added: "It's surprising that Facebook would choose to focus its investigation on academics working with other academics. There are tens of thousands of apps [which] had access to the data for commercial purposes.

"I would have thought it makes the most sense to start there."

On Wednesday, Cambridge University said it was surprised that Mr Zuckerberg had only recently become aware of its research into social media, since it had appeared in peer-reviewed journals.

It said Facebook had not responded to its request for information about the allegations against Dr Kogan.

'Still representing university'

Dr Kogan also defended himself against criticism by the university's Psychometric Centre, which said that even though he had never been connected with it, his commercial activities had reflected on the university as a whole.

Vesselin Popov, the business development director of the Psychometrics Centre, said: "Our opinion is that even if an academic does something 'in their spare time' with their own company, they still ought to be held to professional standards as a psychologist because, like it or not, they are still representing that body and the university in doing it."

Dr Kogan said he was surprised by Mr Popov's comments as he had discussions with academics at the centre about their participation in the project.

"In truth, the Psychometrics Centre never had an ethical issue with the project, as far as I'm aware. To the contrary, my impression was that they very much wanted to be a part of it," he told the BBC.

He said the relationship went sour only after a dispute over how much the Psychometric Centre would be paid for its involvement in the project, not over any ethical concerns.

The Psychometrics Centre, which is based at the university's Judge Business School, rejected Dr Kogan's version of events.

It said it had complained to the university authorities about his behaviour towards two of its academic staff, not about the monetary issue.

Cambridge University says it has received reassurances from Dr Kogan about his business interests but is now conducting a wide-ranging review of the case.