Shortly after the election, it was reported that a big data brokerage firm called Cambridge Analytica was involved in swaying voters in both the US election and the Brexit vote in June of 2016 using targeted social media ads. Those stories made big ripples in the tech world, but there often seemed to be an element of victim-blaming involved: if people didn’t want to be misled by the ubiquitous advertising surveillance complex that have overtaken our digital lives, surely all they had to do is to have the wisdom ten years ago to see through the information asymmetry that tech companies wielded and have the prescience not to become pawns in an ongoing commodification of user data for capitalist gain. Right?
An explosive report this weekend from the New York Times and the Observer of London aided by whistleblower Christopher Wylie (video interview) has gone some way in upending that narrative. It’s not a simple matter of people consenting to exchange privacy for convenience, as it never was. CA contracted out hundreds of thousands of Facebook users to log in and download an app for personality quizzes, which then scraped the user information of all of their friends. In total, some 50 million users’ information was handed over to CA and became the basis of its voter campaigns. Facebook has known about this for nearly two years, but they made CA promise to delete the data, and CA very earnestly said they would, and Facebook deemed that to be good enough.
Both companies are in crisis management mode. Facebook finally banned CA from its platform and attempted the “it’s not a data breach if the apps were installed legally” angle, which I will let cleverer people than me rebut(t):
Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos is stepping down, and neither CEO Mark Zuckerberg nor COO Sheryl Sandberg have said anything in public for days. Cambridge Analytica tried the “advertising doesn’t influence people” angle (then why is anyone paying you?) and attempted to suppress a Channel 4 report on their other unscrupulous practices, including offering to entrap politicians with bribes and sex workers. A growing bipartisan group in Congress wants Mark Zuckerberg to testify in a congressional hearing. The former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Protection Bureau says that Facebook may have violated its consent decree on handling user privacy. Tech stocks have been falling all day, dragging the overall stock index by more than 1%.
This is the main story for today even though it’s not directly a political thing, because how we think about information as a commodity is quickly becoming a defining factor of how we construct democracy. This is why it matters that 45’s “voter fraud” commissioner Kris Kobach wanted to collect voter registration datafrom all fifty states, that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to track the financial habits of student loan borrowers, and that schools from K-12 all the way up to universities are increasingly subjecting their students to large-scale surveillance systems that track everything from location to mood, especially as such surveillance is inevitably hacked. It’s also why we should care that our smart vacuum is selling our home’s floor plans to Amazon and that home voice assistants by definition have to be constantly listening to our conversation in order to detect “wake” words (even if it’s theoretically not recording it), especially now that Amazon is collaborating with the UK police and Google is helping the Pentagon build AI programs for their drones. (We’re not far off from the facial recognition sunglasses that Chinese police are already using.)
If this ecosystem is confusing and overwhelming, it’s designed to be. Informed consent is impossible in this context. You can go some lengths in protecting yourself if you opt out of Facebook and delete your account, but that is itself a privilege. In parts of the world, thanks to the cost incentives of internet access, Facebook is effectively the internet, which also makes them uniquely vulnerable. When Facebook began unceremoniously censoring the posts of Rohingya activists in Myanmar late last year, it was as though their window to the world was shut down. Facebook itself has “shadow-profiles” even of people who don’t use Facebook, built off of secondary information provided by friends, and that’s not even to get into how much offline behaviour (like store purchases) are aggregated and bundled off and sold. As the adage goes, you are only as strong as your weakest link, whether that’s your friend who likes personality quizzes, or your drug store loyalty card.
Fight Fire With Phire is written three days a week, and you get a brief digest that takes less than 5 minutes to read that covers three news topics (including at least one international item), something you can do to help, something we won, and something to make you laugh.