Most of us know the basics of the Facebook scandal involving the political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, which has close ties with Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica obtained massive amounts of Facebook user data through an outside researcher in violation of that person’s usage agreement with Facebook. This data included not only public information, but private data as well as detailed “metadata” about user behavior. Cambridge Analytica analyzed this “big data” to perform “psychographic profiling” in order to conduct “psychological warfare” and “influence operations” to benefit the campaign of Donald Trump.
When you speak with people about this Facebook controversy, many of them will respond by saying that they don’t feel like it’s a very big deal. After all, when users sign up for Facebook, what do they expect? Of course their information is public. This is really a generational problem because people are far too promiscuous in exposing all of their private and personal information. It’s just the world we live in today. And anyway, Cambridge Analytica may have talked big but really had very little impact in the scheme of things. Of course Facebook shares data with advertisers and that benefits us all!
The thing is though, what is actually going on isn’t necessarily benign and it isn’t at all what Facebook users did or should have expected. Analysts keep saying that Facebook “shared” the data. Facebook doesn’t “share” user data. They sell it. They either profit from it directly or leverage it as tangible value to attract their lucrative partner relationships. The profit motive does not in itself corrupt the relationship, but it does potentially shift it from wholesome sharing toward unsavory exploitation.
And they don’t just sell your public postings. They sell subtle usage metrics that go way beyond what you intended to make public and what any one individual could ever see just by looking at your Facebook page. They sell deep metadata that can give insight into how you think and respond and thereby how to manipulate you. They create data sets that contain not only details about your behavior but they can link that behavior in real time to a huge number of other user behaviors and to events going on at that exact moment in the world and in the web of public consciousness.
Given the amount of data they accumulate, sophisticated programs can deduce things about you that you did not intend to make public. You posted that you had zucchini for lunch and like pandas? You might have just divulged your sexual orientation to these sophisticated big data systems. The amount of detail recorded and our ability to analyze, predict, and even modify behaviors based on that data is difficult for most of us to comprehend. What can be done goes way beyond just picking who to target with Cialis or Trump campaign ads. It includes detailed information that provides insight into your deepest psychology, how you think, how you respond, and how you can be manipulated.
Further, this deep metadata isn’t merely sold to well-meaning researcher or advertisers, but it can make its way into the hands of unscrupulous and nefarious players like Cambridge Analytica. They can analyze all this data to determine things about you that you did not intend to make public. They can then use that information to influence how you think about critical matters like elections. If you are important enough, such organizations can even use private information extracted from your public activities to smear, discredit, or even blackmail you.
So the concern about the relationship between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is not just a matter of silly people being too indiscreet with their postings. Concerns about the kind of activities exposed by the nexus between big data analysis and political activity are far more disturbing and potentially consequential. The ability to acquire massive amounts of metadata not intended to be public and to analyze that big data along side other external events to produce individualized predictive algorithms, moves innocent Facebook postings into the dark and scary region of mass undercover surveillance and psychological manipulation. Even if Cambridge Analtyica came nowhere near achieving their ambitious goals in the Trump campaign, make no mistake, the ability to assure elections is their business objective.
Facebook is not the only company profiting from massive information gathering. Google, Amazon and others are also sweeping up data that could be exploited by unscrupulous players like Cambridge Analytica. We need to take this seriously and take steps to ensure that big data works to empower and inform us, not to manipulate us. We need to push back now, and strongly, to ensure that this infant monster born of the information age is controlled before it grows into something powerful enough to ensure its own existence.