Alexander Nix, the deposed chief executive of the infamous and now defunct political consultancy Cambridge Analytica (CA), did his best to convince British lawmakers last week that they were making a mountain out of a molehill.
Testifying before Parliament’s media committee, Nix claimed that the firm was merely “a very small ad agency,” and that its collection and deployment of intimate data regarding at least 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent was nothing more than a “genuine misunderstanding.” Yet despite these protestations, and regardless of the veracity of his claims, the CA scandal is far larger than a molehill or even a mountain: it’s the visible tip of an iceberg as deep as the ocean, threatening to sink the ship of Western liberal democracy.
For those of us following the Cambridge Analytica scandal via public news reports, it’s difficult to know whether the claims made about the consultancy’s pivotal role in the Brexit campaign, Donald J. Trump‘s presidential campaign, and other major political events over the past few years are wildly overblown or dangerously underappreciated.
To be sure, a fair number of data scientists have dismissed CA’s “behavioral microtargeting” techniques as digital snake oil. Nix himself testified that the laundry list of dirty tricks – including sexual entrapment and bribery, that he was caught on tape offering to a Channel 4 journalist posing as a prospective client – were nothing more than “hyperbole.”
Yet the firm must have had some value to its clientele, given the massive amounts of money it consistently commanded for its services, as well as its alignment with winning campaigns in the U.K., U.S., Kenya, Mexico, and India. The ownership stakes of the right-wing billionaire Mercer family and the executive role of “alt-right” political strategist and propagandist Steve Bannon also suggest that CA’s function in these campaigns was integral, strategic, and partisan, rather than that of an unbiased third-party service provider.
Regardless of CA’s intentions or efficacy, its actions point to larger vulnerabilities in our media and political systems that exceed any damage the firm itself may have done.
To begin with, CA’s microtargeting strategy relied on a technological and legal architecture that allowed it to gain access to highly personal information regarding tens of millions of people on Facebook, a company that collects an unprecedented volume of data from 2.2 billion active monthly users across the globe.
Far from being a “hack” or an “exploit,” the mechanism that CA employed was engineered intentionally by the social media giant, and in fact, the collection, analysis, and transaction of such data is the linchpin of its entire business model, which garnered over $40 billion in revenue last year. During the Brexit campaign and 2016 U.S. presidential election, the company actively promoted itself as a political intelligence and marketing platform and even embedded its employees within the Trump campaign. In other words, CA took advantage of a much larger data infrastructure that has been deployed on behalf of a much larger range of clients on a far greater scale.
Facebook acted at best negligently, and possibly maliciously, in turning a blind eye for years to repeated warnings from technology researchers, policy wonks, and public advocates about the potential for misuse of its platform. And, at the time of writing, the CA scandal is only one of many public relations disasters stemming from the company’s voracious collection and lax management of the information its customers have entrusted it with. In the past week alone, the company has been roundly criticized for sharing the private posts of at least 14 million users with the general public, and for sharing consumers’ personal data, without their knowledge or consent, with phone manufacturers, including four connected to the Chinese government.
Yet, as large and powerful as Facebook is, and as integral as its consumer data were to the CA scandal, the company is only one example of larger and less widely recognized data mining infrastructure that has come to dominate nearly every aspect of the internet as a business and civic platform.
This larger infrastructure is typified by both consumer-facing companies like Google and Amazon, and less well-known but equally central ones like Acxiom and Palantir Technologies. While these companies represent a broad range of applications and functions, their platforms and business models all ladder up to a similar goal: namely, collecting as much information as possible about what people do, whom they know, how they spend their money, and how they think about the world, and then using those data to make predictions about what they’ll do, buy, and think next.
These invasive practices and predictive powers, in turn, exist to serve two deeply interconnected new varieties of institutions that are reshaping our cultural and political landscapes.
The first is widely referred to as “surveillance capitalism.” Instead of competing for consumers’ attention and dollars by racing to provide the most innovative and useful products, businesses in this model compete to collect and sell the most consumer data and to influence their purchasing behaviors most effectively.
The second is often called the “digital surveillance state.” While Eastern Bloc countries in the mid-20th century frequently tapped phones and even tailed suspected dissidents as they walked the streets, this new political model aims to collect every conversation, transaction, and public and private activity of each citizen, then sift through the data for signs of emerging threats.
Any reasonable person would conclude that neither free markets nor free nations can exist under conditions such as these. Yet, despite nominal legal protections from the U.S. Constitution to the E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation, commercial and political surveillance are both escalating rapidly. While we must hold the Cambridge Analyticas and the Facebooks accountable for their roles, nothing will improve until we’re able to see the entire iceberg lurking beneath these surface features and steer a wide course around it.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.