Facebook could be in legal trouble as parliaments call for action, for it has never asked authorization for what it would do with the user data.
Privacy violation to sway public opinion has been going on since Arab Springs. Seven years ago, Twitter held sway in Tunisia and Egypt, but WhatsApp and Facebook with video and image focus soon took over in the MENA region. All platforms collect user data and mine them extensively. All have violated privacy off and on, either directly or indirectly, to stay profitable.
The CA modus operandi
Cambridge Analytica, a London-based political consultancy and advertisement firm, collated user data from Facebook to augment its business for years. They have till date, data of 500 million people across the world including 220 million Americans. The US data was collected from Facebook through a simple app created by Alexandr Kogan, a Russian immigrant and lecturer at the University of Cambridge. The app was used to harvest Facebook profiles of over 90% of the US voters and was then analyzed into groups. For example, you could belong to a church-going group or a gun-loving group or a travel enthusiast group or a green group. The strategy company then created separate influencing strategies tailor-made to the psychographics of each group for the Trump presidential campaign.
Cambridge Analytica chief executive officer Alexander Nix told Bloomberg News last year that CA was involved in at least 10 global presidential or prime ministerial campaigns each year in Asia, Africa, Europe and America. The company was also employed in India once during the 2010 Bihar Assembly Elections. Also Cambridge Analytica is not the only company that uses profiles and activity tracking of social media users to create poll strategies. Most hot-shot advertisers and consultancies across the globe do so.
The Trump campaign
The current controversy surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica just highlights a few of the dangers of big data. In a 4-month-old undercover sting operation by Channel 4 News that exposed the political advertising firm, Nix boasted on camera to potential clients from Sri Lanka that the firm used data analytics as well as old school dirty tricks to sway elections. This included sting operations and sending money and girls to lure or trap influencers or political opponents.
The sting operation by Channel 4 News against the masters of sting has political repercussions. Cambridge Analytica is partly funded by conservative hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer in which Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Banon holds a stake of nearly a million dollars. The Democratic Party is trying to prove that President Trump used unfair means to win the US elections and Cambridge Analytics indictment in privacy violation would help prove that.
Christopher Wyle, an independent whistleblower who worked on the Trump campaign, confirmed that specific data models were created to cater to the information about each voter and target their inner demons. As evidence the Canadian analyst who worked with FB till he was recently fired showed emails, invoices, contracts and bank transfer records of 85 million registered US voters to The Observer.
Facebook culpability and denial
Cambridge Analytica is just one of those data companies who act as a political influencers across the globe and operate through Facebook and other social media platforms. But it is not the only one. There are over 100,000 companies active on Facebook each day mining data of users and conducting similar activities with impunity. It is these companies who make Facebook the fastest growing company worldwide with eye-popping revenues of US$ 39.9 billion and revenue growth of 49%.
Facebook denied culpability first when the controversy broke, with Zuckerberg himself staying mum initially. But then the head of the British parliamentary committee Damian Collins investigating fake news accused both CA and Facebook of misleading British MP’s and summoned Zuckerberg and Nix to testify under oath. Revelations in The Observer further put the fat on fire and lawmakers around the world from US, EU, Singapore and even India have promised to take action against data misuse.
Facebook has been always a political tool
Facebook has always been a platform for both social influencers as well as politics. It has always been leveraged, fairly or unfairly, to influence political opinion—be it in democracies or autocracies. Saddam Hussain and Mummar Gaddafi were specifically targeted by NGOs based in Britain and France through social media. The user data from MENA nations were harvested and profiled to build anti-Saddam groups. Facebook has always intruded on privacy and the developers and analysts on Facebook have and will always sell user data.
True it asks users for permissions. But it is not possible for most users to know or deny knowledgeably, because it is fairly opaque in its terminology and verbose in its legal terms and conditions. Similar is the case with Google, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp or Snapchat. Such data is also meticulously mined and sold by your mobile phone operator. The problem is not collection of data. The problem is that they never ask authorization for what they will do with your private data. The laws today are not in place to prevent data abuse. It is the price of free digital platforms and digital connectivity that we all pay once we are connected.
Why Zuckerberg discounts effect of #DeleteFacebook
The #DeleteFacebook campaign started on Twitter soon after the scandal broke, and got immediate support from Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, retweeting the same. But the campaign did not take off as expected as Zuckerberg mounted a salvage operation. After his initial silence he opened up to give interviews to the tech media and others. In these interviews he clearly suggested that it was not Facebook’s fault that CA misused its data.
Realizing that the #DeleteFacebook movement would fade, Zuckerberg told the The New York Times, “I don’t think we’ve seen a meaningful number of people act on that.” But in the same breath he said he was sorry about the data breach and proposed to take preventive action.
As a matter of fact Zuckerberg had already started taking action much before the controversy became public. The FB platform had already lost 50 million users in the last quarter as fake news rose phenomenally. An operation to make FB more accountable disabled thousands of fake accounts. He also sold off 2.7 million shares from his personal stake in Facebook worth US$ 482 million, weeks before the scandal broke and the FB stock tanked 7%. No doubt some action will be taken, but it is highly unlikely that things will change radically and privacy concerns will be set to rest. It is likely that FB will resist external regulation and will only make those changes needed to save itself from legal liability and class action suits.