don’t waste the cambridge analytica scandal

Emerging from several days in hiding while the Cambridge Analytica storm swamped his company, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally spoke on Thursday.

First published at the Guardian

“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” his post sets out. To be clear, this is a statement, not an apology, and it would sit better if Zuckerberg had added the words “to our advertisers and other third parties,” to the end of the sentence. What has been exposed here is not some unforceeable aberration, but an ordinary consequence of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. Cambridge Analytica scandal: the biggest revelations so farRead more

Important things can happen in these rare moments when the mask slips and some of the world’s underlying machineries are exposed to wide critique and analysis. Facebook, its business model, and the web of commercial and political agreements holding it in place are currently undergoing such a moment of slippage. Big, positive changes are possible when events conspire to blow a scandal onto the front page day after day, if the moment of outrage is channeled in meaningful ways.

As ever, this means a lot of well-paid people are scrambling right now to make sure that things change as little as possible, by making sure that we are collectively content to learn the wrong lessons and then go back to how we were. If this all dies down with a handful of executives forced to switch shell companies and an empty commitment by Facebook to work harder to earn our trust, the moment will have been wasted.

Plenty has been written about the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica tie up which boiled over after the Guardian published a whistleblower’s account of how he’d helped build Cambridge Analytica “a full service propaganda machine” to microtarget potential Trump voters in the election campaign which saw Donald Trump win the White House in 2016.

The sleazy way in which Cambridge Analytica was able to scrape Facebook’s vast collection of private information is not the real story here. Neither is the existence of these creepy little consultancies which promise to combine big data holdings with psychographic analysis to help political candidates manipulate voters.

The real question is whether we are ready, collectively, to draw a line under surveillance capitalism itself, and start taking back a measure of control.

The interests ranged against the public are huge. Corporate behemoths like Facebook and Google provide a free service in exchange for information about your most intimate personal, commercial, locational and political life, which they then sell to advertisers or other third parties. That’s the for-profit surveillance model: your inner life and purchasing habits are the product, packaged and on-sold. As you can imagine, political parties benefit hugely from data-driven micro-targeting. In Australia, political candidates are exempt from privacy law, and recent statements from the major parties indicate that’s not a privilege they are planning on giving up. Signals intelligence agencies acting within the Five Eyes network have built even greater data holdings under the US National Security Agency’s informal “collect it all” motto, material which places us all just a heartbeat away from “turn-key tyranny”, to borrow Edward Snowden’s memorable phrase.

The common thread linking each of these layers is the non-consensual exploitation of private information that you might have had a reasonable expectation would be, well, private. It’s not just a simple case of opting out, either; even if you’re willing to give up Facebook’s near-ubiquitous “social graph”, the company also stands accused of amassing “shadow profiles’ of people who aren’t even signed up to Facebook. You also, as many have pointed out, will have a harder time opting out of government data collection.

There are intermediate steps we can take right now, as long as we remember that that’s all they are. Bringing political parties under the remit of Australia’s mediocre privacy laws would be a start. Joining and supporting dedicated organisations like Digital Rights Watch and Electronic Frontiers Australia helps extend their reach and yours. Electronic Frontiers Foundation in the US just posted a how-to manual for deactivating the platform API sharing that underlies the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and Wired Magazine shared a plain-English guide to locking down all of Facebook’s privacy settings, in the event you decide you’re not yet ready to #deletefacebook altogether.

All of these fall short in some important sense though, providing a measure of damage control amid a power landscape that remains deeply out of balance. Rather than trying to make surveillance capitalism a little fairer, we need to work at replacing it altogether.

European developer and rights activist Aral Balkan lays out a set of proposals for replacement, founded on rejection of the idea that our most personal information is just a raw material to be mined, refined and transacted like any other commodity. He, and others like him, propose a return to individual data sovereignty. In a 2017 piece titled “Encouraging individual sovereignty and a healthy commons”, he points out:

People have once again become property – albeit in digital, not biological, form.

To counter this, we must build new infrastructure to enable people to regain individual sovereignty. Those aspects of the infrastructure that concern the world around us must belong to the commons and those parts that concern people … must be owned and controlled by individuals.

Many pieces of this model already exist; there is already a developer community experimenting with tools that serve individuals rather than preying on them, with moves toward ubiquitous encryption in common messaging apps being one example.

The question is whether we’re ready to exercise our data sovereignty, or whether we’re content to play passive victims while surveillance capitalism extends ever finer threads into every corner of our lives. For better or worse, a window is open in which to have that conversation, and it’s in all our interests that it stays open long after Facebook’s immediate woes have scrolled off the bottom of the newsfeed.