If the product is free – you are the product
Social media has long been a platform where people are able and free to express themselves, curate their images, explore, connect and converse. This involves consciously posting images, text, video and other various forms of data to the public, and implicitly, trusting social media platforms with the rest. Whilst terms & conditions and the social media platform’s data use policies may afford you a layer of protection, the reality is that many users are often guilty of clicking “accept” without reading and most users rarely have visibility as to what is done with their data once they post it.
On social media users freely give key information about their identity like name, age, hometown and familial tie, but these platforms also store more granular information about users such as search activity, private messages, the amount of time spent on certain pages, geolocation data, applications used and many other types of meta-data. When identity and stored data are combined a profile of a user as an individual is created.
It has been said that after 150 likes Facebook knows you better than your parents know you, and after 300 it knows you better than your spouse. Human beings like to believe that they are unique, free-thinking and free-spirited individuals, but the reality is that we all share key features, drivers and traits which, when combined with some of the more refined data readily available via social media, create powerful and highly accurate personal profiles, which enables behaviour to be both predicted and manipulated.
There is nothing new or inherently wrong in this. Understanding of others and their behaviour – and predicted behaviour – is key to human interaction and allows us to achieve sophisticated goals, for example in politics, advertising or even medicine.
As is always the case with new technology — social media is still relatively young — society attempts to understand the long lasting implications in the social age, the creation of individual, and the digital footprint. An individual’s digital footprint is rife for exploitation and creates new practical and legal grey areas which leads to the inherently difficult ability to regulate social media.
Think about your own digital footprint:
To whom have you given access to your data and what data and why? Have they sold or given it to anyone? What is that person doing with it – and where? Is any of that lawful? And if it’s not, or you aren’t even sure, how do you as an individual prove it or get any sort of remedy – if you even need one? This continues to be an area where the law trails behind technology creating the potential for exploitation.
One of the most well-known negative examples of data privacy misuse is the Cambridge Analytica Brexit scandal. Cambridge Analytica ‘harvested’ data from a “fun” personality quiz “thisisyourdigitallife“, benefiting from Facebook’s API for Apps, the access point for external App developers to Facebook that can access its respective databases. As was common with apps and games at that time, it was designed to harvest not only the user data of the person taking part in the quiz through the app, but also the data of their friends. Because 270,000 people took the quiz, the data of some 87 million users to date (1 million British users), was harvested without their explicit consent via their friend networks.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”-Christopher Wylie (Whistleblower, formerly Cambridge Analytica)
This breached Facebook’s platform policy which allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising. But Facebook did not take adequate measures to prevent this from happening, and undertook to resolve it without making it public immediately. This data was processed by Cambridge Analytica and allegedly used by the Leave campaigns to target voters through digital marketing campaigns run by AggregateIQ (in Canada), associated with Cambridge Analytica. To compound this, £3.5 million was spent with AIQ by four pro-Brexit campaigning groups, Vote Leave, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Co-ordination between the groups would have broken UK election law.
In May 2018, Facebook told the Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that Vote Leave and BeLeave were targeting exactly the same audiences on Facebook via AIQ. While in July 2018, the Electoral Commission determined that five payments various Leave campaign groups made to a Canadian data analytics firm, AIQ, violated campaign funding and spending laws. The Information Commission Office fined Vote Leave and referred them to the police for breaking electoral law.
Facebook has been given the biggest fine possible of £500 million for lack of transparency and security issues relating to the harvesting of data breaching the Data Protection Act 1998. Had the new GDPR bill been in effect, the fine would have amounted to 4% percent of Facebook’s worldwide turnover.
The Conservative party were inspired by what Facebook marketing and other viral social media had done for Barack Obama’s 2008 Campaign. But also, the Conservatives needed a competitive edge, their traditional canvassing operation is far weaker than Labour’s, and they needed to leverage technology to identify potential voters, quickly. And, due to the contemporary nature of the temporary campaign for one vote, unlike a recurrent general election, neither side had voting history or canvass data they could rely on to characterize and predict the public’s stance on Brexit, until they turned to social media and artificial intelligence. The temporary and emotional characteristics of a campaign augment both the value and dangers of media, marketing messages and the digital analytics used to refine, reinforce and optimise targeting.
What Leave achieved with the EU referendum is a contentious showcase of what humanity can achieve if it sets its eyes on a target worth the risk. Every time you click “accept” to access that exciting new app or technology, your data and your digital footprint could be in jeopardy, the information necessary to not only predict your actions, but to shape your actions and opinion through precise and targeted marketing and mis-information. Did access to the digital footprint of England forever alter the history of the country?
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