So, this is it. We’ve all experienced a strange urge to give everything we know about ourselves to an unspecified, unregulated entity. Who’d have thought becoming functioning members of modern civilisation would come with so many sacrifices? We knew handing over our basic information to Facebook would have some cost: what if they spam our emails or sell our phone numbers to cold callers? What if they find a way to hack our bank accounts?
Of course, with a simple cost-benefit analysis we knew the chances of a giant multinational company robbing our money against our will were fairly slim. It wouldn’t exactly be great for Capitalism if we had no capital. But letting Facebook in on our interests, hobbies, politics, social class… this would all be harmless, right? We’d share this information willingly at a party. It just so happens that, at this never-ending party which we dip in and out of as we please, the host is one of the richest companies in the world, and over two billion of us are telling it everything we possibly can about ourselves every single day, relentlessly sharing the most specific of our interests, and not pausing at any moment to let it tell us even so much as what it does for a living. But it might help if we did stop. We might feel a little uneasy about sharing quite so much about ourselves if we did.
With the political consulting firm/private propaganda machine* Cambridge Analytica, Big Brother doesn’t even need to watch you. He mocks Nineteen Eighty-Four’s fictional world of overt indoctrination and telescreens; what he’s capable of is far more subtle. Cambridge Analytica — the firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election campaign and the Brexit group Leave.EU — harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of over 50 million people without consent, using this information to target them with personalised political adverts. This goes far beyond the remit of what would normally constitute political campaigning. Cambridge Analytica’s ex-Director of Research, whistleblower Christopher Wylie, told the Observer: “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.” In other words, they were “playing with the psychology of an entire nation.” Whether or not Cambridge Analytica swung the presidential election or the EU referendum is impossible to tell. What we do know is the scale of this was huge, and the same techniques can be recycled by others. Big Brother doesn’t care who carries it out.
At this stage, it isn’t even the basic information about ourselves we need to worry about. Cambridge Analytica accessed our status updates, likes, and in some cases private messages. This is not political campaigning: this is a mass-scale propaganda operation. This is playing with people’s psychology. A consequence of the digital age seems to be a sacrifice of our privacy. If Facebook can’t be trusted not to hand over the data of millions of people to an academic with ties to a firm like Cambridge Analytica, why should we trust Amazon, Google or Snapchat? These companies, among the richest and most powerful in the world, know what we buy, what we search for (thus a lot of what we think) and even where we are. With targeted advertising based on our searches, we know this information doesn’t go ignored. And with the introduction of Snap Maps, we aren’t just tracked for those location-specific filters we use in case someone doesn’t know which city the London Eye is in: we voluntarily share our location for everyone to see (or, at least, those who we have on Snapchat). Let’s face it: our privacy is gone. The modern life is public.
The legislation on electoral campaigning is designed for an analogue age.
This is incredibly worrying when it starts affecting our democratic process. The legislation on electoral campaigning is designed for an analogue age. As the case of Cambridge Analytica shows, there need to be digital restrictions to establish the line between a political campaign and outright propaganda, or, as Wylie describes it, “psychological warfare”. A limited campaign budget restricts the number of people you can employ, the number of leaflets you can print and the number of big red buses you can hire. It does very little to restrict the ways in which Facebook advertising is created, to whom it’s targeted, and how people’s online information is obtained. But the biggest problem of all is that, let’s face it, we need Facebook. I for one would become a social recluse without it, unable to keep up with countless events or make conversation with people at the (excessively high) expected rate. Changing how we use it will restrict us in our daily lives more than it restricts them. Frankly, there is no escape.
The story of Cambridge Analytica is a wake-up call as to how technology companies can use our data. Sure, people have been saying for years that they’re infringing on our privacy, but the prospect of a party with a company like Facebook never seemed particularly concerning. We knew they had this information about us, we knew it was used for targeted advertising, and we even knew Facebook was never the most trustworthy company. When Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004, he described its users as “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their personal data. But the revelations about Cambridge Analytica serve as concrete evidence that our data isn’t in safe hands; they uncover something much deeper than what we already knew.
The state of affairs is this: we’re sharing more about ourselves than ever before, and the vast majority of us seem to be reaping the benefits of this democratisation. The potential to promote ourselves has never been greater. But with private companies knowing more about us than ever before, this won’t be the last time our trust is exploited. And frankly, I can’t offer a solution. What I should do is encourage everyone to pile the pressure on lawmakers and Facebook to put an end to this absurdity. But it’s far easier to just accept the current climate, because, let’s face it, our lives are already public. If any amount of privacy is won back, it’s unlikely we won’t continue in the direction we’re heading. I sincerely hope Facebook responds to the pressure of public opinion by treating privacy as a genuine concern. Either way, it may be time we came to terms with the dystopia of the public life.
*not strictly accurate in legal terms, probably.