What if I tell you I know your name and address some might not take it seriously. But what if I tell you I have information about more than a million people and I make money with this information. You might get surprised. Well, companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and many more are earning billions by selling your data. How? Imagine you are accessing the internet and opened Facebook. You liked a post, uploaded status, left a comment on someone’s post, and all other activities are tracked and your data is stored in the company’s server.
In a way, it is not wrong to say that all social networking apps / social media like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etcetera have all our information. Yes! Selling your data companies earns billions. Let’s try to understand this with an example. You searched a product on Amazon after a few minutes you open your Facebook and you will see the ads for the same product that you were looking on Amazon a few minutes ago. Think yourself. You just searched the product on Amazon and the same product is shown to you as an advertisement on your Facebook page. So how Facebook knew you are interested in that product.
In a way, it’s not wrong to say your data is used for advertisements. Advertisements like this can influence your decision and you might remember the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data scandal. If you are not aware let’s learn about it.
Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Data Scandal
On March 16, 2018, The New York Times and The Guardian reported that a data-mining firm named Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained access to more than 50 million user profiles. In the history of Facebook, this was the biggest data breach. It led to a decline in Facebook stock price. So let’s look at what happened.
The story starts in 2014. That’s when a University of Cambridge researcher named Aleksandr Kogan created an app called “This is your digital life”. About 270,000 people downloaded it, gave away their information, and Kogan, unbeknownst to them, passed along that information to a data mining and political strategy firm, named Cambridge Analytica.
At the time, Facebook’s platform API let developers like Kogan access information about your friends as well as yourself. Christopher Wylie, who used to work at Cambridge Analytica, told The Times and The Guardian that was how his company was able to get access to information of as many as 50 million people. And the idea was, that by gleaning your Facebook likes, the company could begin to understand your personality and then, more effectively target political advertising at you.
This kind of thing is known as psychographic profiling. Experts say it can be useful at the margins in persuading voters but at the same time, they say its effect can be easily overstated.
Granted, Trump’s campaign wasn’t the first to gain information about potential supporters using Facebook. In fact, in 2012, President Obama’s election team had created an app and done a very similar thing. But there was a big difference. President Obama’s team told voters what it was doing.
Cambridge Analytica obtained this information in total violation of Facebook’s rules and didn’t tell anybody who was taking Kogan’s personality quiz that their data would eventually be used for political advertising targeting. The Guardian revealed the scheme in 2015. Facebook went to Kogan and Cambridge Analytica and demanded that they delete all of the data that they had obtained in violation of Facebook’s rules.
After reading all this you must have concerns about your data privacy and how political party access to your data from apps like Facebook. Let’s look at another example
Cambridge Analytica Brexit
Brexit means the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
Cambridge Analytica was allegedly hired as a consultant company for Leave.EU (it was a political campaign group that supported the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union)and the United Kingdom Independence Party during 2016, as an effort to convince people to support Brexit.
Brittany Kaiser declared that the datasets that Leave.EU utilize to create databases were provided by Cambridge Analytica. These datasets composed of the data obtained from Facebook were said to be work done as an initial job deliverable for them.
Because there’s no archive of ads that people had seen or what had been pushed into their news feeds. No trace of anything, gone completely dark. This referendum had a profound effect. This entire referendum took place in darkness because it took place on Facebook and what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook, because only you see your news feed, and then it vanishes, so it’s impossible to research anything. Multiple crimes took place during the referendum and they took on Facebook.
In Britain, the amount of money that you can spend in an election is limited. But these laws don’t work anymore. This referendum took place almost entirely online and you can spend any amount of money on Facebook, Google, and YouTube ads and nobody will know because they’re black boxes.
Brexit resulted in damage to the UK’s economic growth. It impacted on trade as tariffs would raise the cost of exports.
Facebook user’s data was harvested without consent by Cambridge Analytica to be predominantly used for political advertising. The app not only harvested the personal data of the users that completed the questions, but also of the users that completed the questions, but also the user’s Facebook friends. Cambridge Analytica sought to sell the data of American voters to political campaigns as it did in Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns.
Maybe you think, well, it was just a bit of overspending. It’s a few lies. But this was the biggest electoral fraud in Britain for a hundred years.
Cambridge Analytica had profiled people politically in order to understand their individual’s fears to better target them with Facebook ads. Maybe you think, it was just a few ads and people are smarter than that, right? To which I would say, “Good luck with that” because what the Brexit vote demonstrates is that liberal democracy is broken. This is not democracy – spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from who knows where.
Companies gather our data and use it to earn billions but that’s not enough they use our data to manipulate our options in political matters. It’s subversion, and you are accessories to it. Democracy is not guaranteed, it is not inevitable and we have to fight and we have to win, we cannot let these tech companies have this unchecked power. We should not take this lightly. Political parties can use these dirty tricks and we might not be away from the days of the dictatorship of political parties who will manipulate our thoughts by showing us advertisements in apps like Facebook that will benefit them at the end.