The Cambridge Analytica scandal has been in the headlines for weeks as a melodrama of political intrigue that normally would be a television mini-series. There is the misuse of social media data belonging to 50 million people; the conversion of that data into micro targeted political campaign marketing to help the Trump campaign; newspaper stories about the company and its aﬃliates working to manipulate elections in other parts of the world; and even sensational reports that company executives oﬀered to use prostitutes and bribery to discredit political opponents of clients.
These stories will no doubt be fodder for the multiple investigations underway, as well as raising concerns about the impact of these kind of marketing tactics on our democracies. But embedded within this saga is a more fundamental point that should alert all of us to the way in which we have been caught up in a revolution — the explosive changes in the way our personal data is collected; integrated; analyzed and used to aﬀect our behavior. At stake is not just privacy, but actually freedom.
What the Cambridge Analytica story demonstrates first is that the data about us that is regularly harvested is not just what we wittingly post or transmit on line. The entering wedge of Cambridge Analytica’s data collection was an apparently limited request by a developer to have Facebook users complete an online survey. Slightly over a quarter of a million did so. But by downloading the survey, they opened the door to collection of data about all their friends and their other on-line interactions. As a result, data relating to approximately 50 million individuals was captured. The vast majority of these people did not know that their information was being used.
Marketers will continue to refine targeting
Perhaps improperly, this data was transferred to Cambridge Analytica for the purpose of applying machine learning algorithms to correlate granular connections between individuals and their likely political predilections and interests. This analysis could then be applied for precisely targeted, individually focused political advertising aimed at potential voters. It is debatable whether this had an impact on the election outcome, but it is certain that political campaigns and even governments will continue eﬀorts to refine and apply the political marketing techniques.
And the purpose of those techniques will not only be to aﬀect elections. As we have seen, information from Russia and other foreign powers has been used to create social division, sow public distrust, and even foment unrest. Weaponized data is the newest tool in the armory of subversion.