Our data, taken without our consent, can be used for informational warfare that harms our democracy.
The Cambridge Analytica (CA) controversy has captured international mindspace over the last two days. In an interview with the Guardian, Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower at CA, laid bare the facts of how the company, under the influence of Steve Bannon (Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and former executive chairman of Breitbart) and Robert Mercer (an AI billionaire and Republican donor) used data from social media for “information warfare”. Wylie claims that over 50 million Facebook user profiles were harvested under false pretences, and then used for ballot box gains in the 2016 US presidential elections.
People not only share and like things on social media, but often participate in “free” quizzes and personality tests that let these social media companies gather data on their personal and ideological preferences. The analysed data can then used for commercial purposes, by either directly displaying ads and news tailored to particular demographic groups, or by further passing this data (knowingly or otherwise) to analytics companies like CA. The data analytics firms combine data from multiple sources and, using highly advanced algorithms, can generate sophisticated psychological profiles at group and individual levels. They can sell these to anyone who stands to profit from exploiting this data. These profiles are powerful tools, and can be used for tactical and strategic purposes against one’s opponent, or for spreading propaganda and fake news to influence susceptible people. Thus ensues “information warfare”.