By Max Aitchison
“If the platform is free then you are the product.”
Never has this adage been so apparent than in the wake of the Facebook data scandal. Cambridge Analytica (CA), a firm that specialises in ‘behavioural-change programmes’ and ‘psychographic targeting’, stands accused of illegally harvesting the data of 87 million Facebook users whilst working on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016. CA allegedly used the stolen data to target individuals with specific adverts in an attempt to influence their voting choice.
Just when you felt the negative publicity surrounding CA couldn’t get much worse, it did. A day after The Observer and The New York Times published exposés of their involvement in the Trump campaign and their illegal acquisition of reams of data from unwitting Facebook users, Channel 4 News published their own undercover investigation. This contained actual footage of the company’s former CEO, Alexander Nix, boasting of the insidious means through which they are able to influence elections around the world, including the use of bribes and ‘honey-traps’. The highlight, however, had to be Mr Nix explaining how one particularly successful method of dispatching an opponent was to covertly film them accepting a bribe before ruthlessly exposing them – all the while unaware that he was being secretly filmed himself.
Cambridge Analytica’s CEO boasted of their ability to influence elections with bribes and ‘honey-traps’
Since the story first haemorrhaged into the public consciousness, it has embroiled many individuals and organisations on both sides of the Atlantic. Amidst accusations of possible criminal coordination between supposedly separate campaign groups in a bid to circumvent election spending rules during the Brexit referendum, the Leave campaign has also been linked to CA’s dodgy dealings through an associated firm, AggregateIQ. If proven, this could severely taint the legitimacy of the referendum result.
The scandal surrounding CA has major ramifications for two of the largest and most recent afflictions to beset Western liberal democracy: Brexit and Trump’s election. Just like the Mueller investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian state, you can be sure that this scandal will bubble in the background for some time yet.
We need to confront the issue of ‘big data’ and its handling by multinational corporations
However, the larger, more immediate, story to arise from all of this is the issue of ‘big data’ and how it is handled by multinational corporations. Make no mistake, CA’s alleged behaviour is, at best, deeply unethical, and at worst, highly illegal. But don’t let the Old Etonian, Mr Nix, with his coiffed hair and Savile Row suits, fool you. He and CA are the pantomime villains in this parade. (For starters, there isn’t any verifiable evidence CA’s “psychological warfare mindfuck tool” – as the whistle-blower, Christopher Wylie, described it – actually worked.)
Instead, the real enemy are the social media conglomerates with a reckless and arrogant attitude towards our data. Facebook may be caught in the crosshairs right now, but this scandal could easily have engulfed the likes of Twitter or Amazon, both firms who employ similarly extensive third party sharing practices. (A recent leader in The Economist described these tech giants as BAADD – big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy.)
Mark Zuckerberg appeared very contrite and conciliatory last week when grilled in two congressional hearings, at constant pains to apologise for his firm’s “breach of trust”. However, it is worth remembering that Facebook’s initial response to the data violation back in 2015 was to reject the very notion that a breach had even occurred. Instead, they threatened legal action, arguing that “everyone involved” had “knowingly provided their information”.
And on one level, they had reason to believe this was true. Most of the tech giants have ambiguous, catch-all clauses hidden in their arcane terms of service agreements: stipulations such as “your data will be used to improve our services” essentially authorise their extensive data harvesting and third party sharing practices. The recent uproar has exposed the long-held view in Silicon Valley that our data is the currency with which we pay for the free service they provide.
For Silicon Valley, our data is the price we pay for their free service
As with so many things, South Park predicted the current climate in an episode aired in 2011. The plot of ‘HUMANCENTiPAD’ concerns an obscure and unread clause in the iTunes user agreement that forces Apple customers to become part of a “revolutionary new product”. This product consists of them being stitched together like the unfortunate victims in the cult classic The Human Centipede. Ken Tucker, an Entertainment Weekly critic, summed up the episode’s message: “Knowledge really matters; many people are lazy and consequently become prey to exploitation”.
And he’s right. When was the last time you accepted a set of terms and conditions you had actually read? Our insatiable desire for frictionless digital transactions has led to a capitulation of critical thinking and basic autonomy. Admittedly, no one is being forcibly stitched to anyone’s orifice but the principle is the same – we are consenting to terms and conditions without bothering to read a word.
Our privacy is plundered for profit as our lives are increasingly governed by complex algorithms
Until now, Silicon Valley believed it could self-regulate. The CA scandal has proven this is not the case. Government-imposed regulation is required and the General Data Protection Regulation coming into force across the EU in May will go some way towards ensuring companies tighten up the specificity of their privacy policies. It will also give regulators the opportunity to impose heavy fines if data protection standards are not met. The US would do well to adopt a similar form of regulation.
Despite this, the harvesting of data is still a multi-billion-dollar industry. Facebook’s business model depends on the maximisation of profit over privacy. We now live in an age of ‘surveillance capitalism’, where every click, view and search is tracked and collated. Our privacy is plundered for profit as our lives are increasingly governed by complex algorithms. Perhaps think twice the next time you click ‘I agree’.
Photograph: Book Catalog via Flickr and Creative Commons.