The testimony of Christopher Wylie, a pink-haired Canadian researcher-turned-whistleblower, is currently poised to educate millions of Americans––possibly for the first time––on how Facebook profits from sharing information about them. The business model that the platform has been using since its inception has led to one of the largest threats to voter privacy to emerge since the invention of the open web.
The scope of that threat isn’t limited to just an election, a president, or a social network––though historically any one of those things would have individually captured the top news on a normal day.
Wylie’s use of the phrases like “exploited” and “harvest” may, at first glance, seem like an extreme way to frame a common method used by advertisers to sell products, goods, and services. The information in question is what people share with social networks when they sign up to use them, including the mundane details of existence: name, birthday, place of birth and current location. But if this kind of data swapping is acceptable, why did Facebook take the step of suspending Wylie’s use of Facebook’s platform to access that data and, more curiously, Aleksandr Kogan, founder of Global Science Research?
Did Cambridge Analytica break the law? What does Facebook know about how its data was used?
Facebook collects other things that, when combined with psychoanalytic research and personally identifying information, can estimate a person’s values, religious or social biases, sexual and gender orientation, and other details that aren’t made public by consent, such as discriminatory or violent beliefs against others (fueled by bigotry or racism).
Civil rights experts and privacy advocates are concerned by the tangible threat that these methods could be employed to target individuals, erode privacy rights, manipulate elections, and remove the foundation on which the protection of peaceful elections is so delicately balanced.
“It allowed us to move into the hearts and minds of American voters in a way that had never been done before.” Wylie, interview with Channel 4 News (YouTube)
This is where Cambridge Analytica’s relationship working on behalf of the campaign of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump comes into play.
To skeptics, Cambridge Analytica has only now become a talking point because of the controversial Trump presidency and ever-increasing fears around Facebook’s monopolistic success. Those individuals point to the fact that hundreds of local, national, and international political campaigns have legally strived to influence voters on Facebook since the network began selling user data. This boils down to a “there’s nothing here to see, please move along” line of defense, even though most Americans have no clue that any of this occurs in the first place.
If Wylie’s testimony proves true––he claims to have built Steve “Bannon’s psychological warfare tool––it represents a fundamental shift in the public awareness of the kinds of obligations companies have to protect individual privacy rights on the web, not just in countries affected by recent developments, but around the world. According to Wylie, Cambridge Analytica’s work threatens the democratic process and it was, simultaneously, created out of data directly provided by Facebook.
“Facebook has denied and denied and denied this. It has misled MPs and congressional investigators and it’s failed in its duties to respect the law,” Paul-Olivier Dehaye, interview with The Guardian
Consumer responses and the courts
There are two factors that are of the utmost importance when considering this investigation. The first one is the matter of whether voter data was illegally or unethically used. Expect that question to spin directly into the legal arena, especially around the second key factor, the definition of the word or concept of “breach” (see Steve Peer’s reply to Facebook’s Alex Stamos, noting that “breach” has legal implications which are key to Dave Carroll’s case against Cambridge Analytica):
As Steve Zittrain notes, we must wonder if this a data breach, or a trust breach, or both in a series of each other. A new MoveOn.org petition by Justin Hendrix, accompanied by a new site Regulate Social Media, calls for Facebook to disclose user privacy breaches by Cambridge Analytica.
“It is time to seriously question how best to regulate technology companies to give citizens and governments the means to defend themselves from such breaches,” Hendrix shared after a request for comment, “and to better understand how data, dark money and politics combine to influence citizens and undermine democracy. ”
As this investigation moves forward, there are other (related and unanswered) questions to consider:
- Are there additional misuses of Facebook user data, including breaches, made by other companies or researchers that we do not know about?
- Why don’t Americans have equal data protection rights as compared to Europe?
- What FEC-related violations may have occurred?
It’s likely that a multitude of inquiries, as opposed to a single effort or federal-level investigation, will help answer these questions. For example, as of this writing, the Massachusetts attorney general has launched an investigation in response to Wylie’s testimony.
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