Data privacy and data protection is something I think about often, and although the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal is incredibly scary, I can’t say that I’m overwhelmingly surprised about these revelations. Here is a quick recap for those of you who may have missed the latest news reports:
- In 2015, data from approximately 50 million Facebook profiles was harvested by Cambridge Analytica, and this information was used (without authorisation) to target individual US voters in the 2016 election;
- Facebook has been aware of this data breach since 2015;
- The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, where users were paid to take a personality test agreeing to have their data collected for academic use, but the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends. (The Guardian)
Since this story was first revealed by Canadian whistleblower Christopher Wylie late last week, further revelations have come to light:
- An undercover investigation lead by Channel 4 News revealed the head of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, boasting of using dirty tricks (including honey traps and fake news campaigns) to help swing elections; (The Guardian)
- Former Facebook employees have spoken out about the company’s overall lax approach to data privacy; (The Guardian)
- Cambridge Analytica’s ownership details have come to light: in the US it is backed by the Mercer family, who are major Donald Trump supporters, and in the UK, the company is linked with SCL Group.
The revelations from this major data breach serve as an important reminder that the utopian discourse that platforms use to describe themselves (ex: “connectivity”, “community”, “sharing”, “peer-to-peer”) obfuscates their commercial reality: these platforms are ultimately constructed and managed in pursuit of economic gain, not the public interest. As Margaret Wente writes in her most recent opinion piece, we (the users of platforms) have forgotten the first rule of marketing: “If the product is free, the real product is you.”
While all of this is important to be aware of, the scariest aspects of the Cambridge Analytica data breach are its democratic consequences, and the power of digital information in the context of elections. It is one thing for a clothing company to capitalize on a Facebook users likes, engagements and Google searches in order to advertise their spring line, but it is a completely different thing to use this information in order to create customized political content that is deliberately anti-democratic, such as the “oversimplified rhetoric, out-of-context quotes or outright fake news” that has plagued recent elections (The Globe and Mail).
As Adam Radwanski writes, negative political advertising and attack advertising is not new. What is new is our increasingly personalized, rather than mass, viewing experiences, which mean that political actors aren’t as concerned with how their content looks to the broader public; their priority is how this content resonates with the person they are micro-targeting. Increasingly, we engage with news and information in algorithm-driven bubbles, and the collapse of local media further exacerbates this problem.
This week, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, launched an investigation into Facebook and advocated for strengthening Canada’s privacy laws. Part of his investigation will look into whether Canadians’ data was included in the information collected by Cambridge Analytica (CBC). It’s obvious that regulation in general is ten steps behind these issues, so our hope is that the Cambridge Analytica revelations serve as a catalyst for a shift toward greater data privacy and protection laws. In Canada, updating legislation to include the regulation of political parties as part of the Privacy Act is a good place to start.
As Doug Saunders wrote this week, Cambridge Analytica itself is not the problem, the problem is companies’ “unlimited, unquestioned” access to our personal information, especially when you position this access in the context of political elections. Saunders’ closing warning is apt: “We need to seize regulatory control of our most popular communications tools, before even more aspects of democratic politics become obsolete and uneconomic.”
Authored By: Emma McKay, Co-Founder & Editor, mPolitics