Cambridge Analytica – Watergate without convictions

Instigated by a report in the Guardian on March 17th, the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica has now been blown into almost astronomical proportions. The scandal first broke surrounding the use of data mining in electoral campaigns; the harvesting of millions of Facebook user’s personal data in order to create personalised and targeted political advertising campaigns, that would influence voter preference. Following on from this, video footage from an undercover report into Cambridge Analytica uncovered admittance by a senior figure in the organisation, pertaining to the use of data mining, political entrapment and even the use of ‘honey traps’; the use of escorts to entrap politicians in sexual scandals.  Since the story broke less than one week ago, the fallout has been significant and international. Facebook itself has come under fire, losing over $60 billion in its stock value, facing lawsuits from shareholders, and with its CEO Mark Zuckerberg being summoned to several judicial reviews into the incident.

Scandals surrounding political influencing are nothing new. Campaign donor scandals, intentional spoiling of ballot papers; where there is democracy, there is the potential for scandal to emerge around elections and voter preference shaping. Where Cambridge Analytica becomes significant, however, is in three ways; its scope, its precedent, and the high likelihood that, when the dust settles, there will be no convictions or real legislative impact on this sort of growing arena. Though the accusations surrounding the use of ‘spies’ and ‘honeypots’ are nothing short of accusations of corruption, blackmail and extortion, it is important not to call for conviction until these charges have clear evidence. Evidence of data mining, however, is more than clear; it is undoubtable and unequivocal evidence of an operation to access, analyse and manipulate private information to produce ‘favourable’ election results for Cambridge Analytica’s clients.

What is primarily startling about the scandal is the international scale on which Cambridge Analytica is accused of influencing politics and elections. According to Straitstimes.com, the reach of Cambridge Analytica’s influence has been reported from Malaysia to Kenya; the latter being accusations that the success of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, in both the 2013 and 2017 elections, was due to influence and management by the firm. Rumours have even begun to circulate that the Trump campaign had ties with the firm, with CNN reporting that the firm helped to establish the digital aspect of the campaign that – in Analytica’s own words- contributed significantly to the 2016 election victory. It has been near unanimous that political influencing is a thing of the past in modern liberal democracy. No longer. Here we have a firm being hired by politicians worldwide, accessing online data through the largest social media site in the world, to create personalised campaigns that sway voter opinion significantly – and such data mining is the most reputable thing the company stands accused of.

Focus on the data mining aspect of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, however, raises a more insidious point. A firm built around electoral campaigning, hired to process voter data and advise on electoral strategy is nothing new whatsoever; firms have been making millions advising in political campaigns for decades. What is scandalous about Cambridge Analytica is the fact that the firm mined millions of Facebook profiles to construct its analytical models. Regardless of whether you believe their attempted justification that all the files were ‘legally and correctly obtained’, what has occurred is that a private firm accessed, downloaded and analysed millions of user’s personal data, online preferences and private information, to create targeted advertising campaigns for politicians willing to pay highly enough. It is perhaps nothing short of the largest invasion of privacy we have seen in the 21st century. With the scope of such invasion of online privacy still unknown, Cambridge Analytica raises serious questions on how secure our private information is; especially with the ever-increasing commercialisation of social media, and societal reliance upon new technology and social media platforms in our everyday lives.

So, what can be done? Apparently, next to nothing. As far as international law relating to such cyber mining extends, it is increasingly difficult to keep pace with the exponential growth of the information sector. Though several criminal investigations in various countries are certainly a good place to start, it is highly unlikely that criminal charges will land on the heads of the senior figures involved. Political campaigns, from Trump to Kenya, have a certain degree of deniability surrounding the extent and maliciousness of the data mining undertaken; the same can be said of Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook group. Co-operation with the criminal reviews may even act to benefit them; though it is impossible to predict or speculate with any accuracy until the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s influence becomes clear. Though the scandal has created waves internationally, it is highly likely that the only real impact the scandal will have, besides the potential for a few arrests within the Cambridge Analytica organisation, is the fall of Facebook stocks.

One thing remains clear, however. With the continuing growth and centrality of the internet in our society, and with the increasing focus of using media platforms for all our personal information, the international community must respond to this scandal with a serious legislative framework; one that protects us as consumers, as individuals and as citizens, from such exploitative and invasive data mining again. We are people; individuals with rights, not data sets available to the highest bidder.