Cambridge Analytica scandal – is Data Privacy a mirage?

The unauthorized “harvesting” of personal data of over eighty million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica is the latest in a continuing saga of data related scandals. Breaking his long silence, Zuckerberg apologized to his billion plus users worldwide and called it a “breach of trust” and vowed to take steps to protect user data. But the damage has been done.

As many averred, Zuckerberg’s apology inherently assumes Facebook users will continue to trust it and that all will be forgiven and it will be business as usual. That may well turn out to be true. But given the seriousness of this “breach of trust”, this may have serious consequences on its fortunes. One immediate fallout is the #DeleteFacebook campaign that quickly went viral. Also Facebook stock lost almost 9% in value.

Facebook’s supreme success rests on a business model built on profiting from customer data and its priceless derivative – customer insights. Notwithstanding Zuckerberg’s apology and promises to clean up, it is anybody guess if he will really follow up or implement only cosmetic changes.

This brings into focus the importance of consumer data in today’s data driven economy. It is common knowledge that vast amounts of data are being generated every day, particularly by social media users. Using sophisticated analytics, this data can be mined to yield powerful insights about users. In fact, it is a common practice for marketing companies to use these insights to create a full behavioral personality profile or characteristics of an individual.

Products and service or even a political ideology could then be effectively tailored or custom fitted for that profile in what is called micro targeting. This data driven super customization has wide applications – in retail marketing, business espionage, political campaigns etc. It is for this reason that today data is seen as the most important resource and companies would do anything to get their hands on it.

Given the multiple use of this cutting edge knowledge resource born out of the confluence of technology and high end quantitative skills, it is indeed awing and worrisome at once. It is like a knife that can be used in the kitchen as well as to kill. The exploits of companies like Cambridge Analytica have justifiably caused disquiet among large sections of society.

Cambridge Analytica, like many other companies, are way ahead of the curve in using these precious insights in seeking to “change audience behavior”, or to generate a favorable outcomes in the targeted populations in a general election. Hence their popularity with political parties worldwide, including India.

As can be seen, there is nothing illegal per se in Cambridge Analytica’s business model. In fact all major corporations worldwide are engaged in exploiting data in one form or other for their bread and butter. But the illegal gathering of profile information of millions of users without their express consent is what is under scrutiny.

But what has been a rude wake up call for many is the fact that companies like Cambridge Analytica can potentially disrupt a democratic process like an election. Undercover videos shared by Britain’s Channel 4 News show how the company actively planted news – typically fake news in the “bloodstream of the internet and let it grow” to achieve desired social and electoral outcomes.

This it very much akin to what the Soviet Union was doing decades ago to brainwash its people. The distinctions between legal and illegal is often blurry and Cambridge Analytica and its ilk appear to have exploited it to the hilt. To confound the issue, in many countries, regulators have still not woken up to combat this malefic use of data.

The problem is indeed acute in countries like India where political parties have shrewdly worked off radar to use the services of Cambridge Analytica and its subsidiaries to “influence social behavior” in the election process. How far the election processes have been subverted is anybody’s guess. But it is equally futile to point fingers at the Congress party or the BJP since all of them have at some point in time used these services.  It is like the Democrats in the US blaming the Republicans because the Trump campaign used them in 2016. But it came back on the Democrats when it was revealed that they too – the Obama campaign in 2012 – had extensively used such services.

The scary part here is that the users whose data is being fought over, have practically no say in the matter because they have already shared their private information on the internet. It has left their hands and there is no way they can get it back. How this will be used and shared or who will use this is being decided by companies like Facebook who are primarily motivated by profits and not overly concerned about user privacy. That such breaches and data hacks occur regularly speak volumes of the gap between current laws and their rigorous enforcement.

And this will definitely not be the last of data breaches or breaches of trust. But the real problem is that we are confronted by an insurmountable issue here that threatens individual liberty and the inalienable right to lead a private, yet social life.

In the end, these social engineers who stole personal information of millions of unsuspecting users in reality turned out to be deadly data terrorists who deployed their stolen assets to disrupt cherished democratic processes and skewed election outcomes in so many countries at the bidding of their paymasters.

The bitter truth is that we live in a world where nothing is private. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and any number of known and lesser known companies already know more about us than we can imagine. We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that, however unpalatable it may be, data privacy is just a mirage.

The need for agile, yet draconian laws on data usage together with forensic monitoring of disposal of data has been repeatedly pointed out by experts in the field. Hopefully, the wait may not be long. Social media companies have long taken the naïve user for a ride. It is time they stepped off the roller coaster.

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