Disruptive Data – The Facebook & Cambridge Analytica Scandal

“By entering this arena, you have agreed to be filmed and recorded for security purposes”, read a disclaimer on a signboard outside the huge shopping complex. Hardly anyone noticed the stark resemblance in the data policies offered by the likes of web giants such as Facebook, Google, Amazon etc.  The continuous monitoring of the online apps is nothing different from the recording by CCTV cameras.

Recent scandals of the data breach involving Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and other firms which heavily bank upon user data for continuous improvement of services have made a huge uproar in the digital consciousness.  Have you ever thought how the apps have grown so smart?  How can Facebook suggest friends you had just met for the first time?  How have advertisements become so relevant? How do apps remind you that the air fare has just decreased to ease your travel?

It’s pretty overt that the apps are tracking every move of your digital life. Sometimes informing you, sometimes running in the background. You might argue what is so wrong in that? So what if it’s not asking every time? Ultimately, it’s providing a much-curtailed experience to our liking. Yes and No. Yes, it takes much less time for you to finalise that  TV. And no, because you might have been influenced to buy that big TV just because the ads were so promising. This was a simple example of manipulation, whereas there can be some serious consequences as well.

Facebook has been criticised by policymakers,  regulators,  stock market after it was reported that the data-science firm Cambridge Analytica derived data from 50 million Facebook users. Cambridge  Analytica, the British political consulting firm that mined data from the social networking site for the Trump Presidential campaign for 2016 has been alleged to sway the election results.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, testified in front of two U.S. Congressional committee to defend the ideology on which Facebook was built. Mark explained the business models on which Facebook and likewise other companies run.  They are data aggregators and continuously increase their user base which in turn are projected to 3rd party firms who needs a target audience for their selling of products.  It is massively efficient and a win situation for any company looking to sell their products.

So, the best win-win situation would be to sell this data in a restricted way or the restriction of manipulation with this data. Mark even clarified that if Facebook stops advertisement then Facebook should be a paid service to sustain itself. All these tech giants are based on the presumed ability to mine, analyze and sell data.

The recent developments of computing, widespread availability of data has made the whole experience so enriching that we seldom notice what we are sharing, where we are sharing and with whom we are sharing. There was a simple joke circulating on WhatsApp that how once a person had put up a “Check-in” status on Facebook. Through which the local burglars knew that his house is an easy target to loot while he is away. And the thieves themselves got caught because they tagged the owner to the selfie pictures while looting his house.  It is hilarious and reflects on the society we live in now.

So long as your phone is switched on, your location is not private. Apps these days even predict what food you would like now depending on our health, mood, weather, the location which is all very flattering but at the same time very unsettling when you realize what if your personal data might be used to inflict any kind of harm on you.

In  2012, an American teenager started receiving coupons for baby products from the supermarket Target. The disturbed father of the teenager rushed down to a local outlet and threatened the supervisor for this hugely unsettling incident. The manager apologized to him, but as it turned out, the data analytics of Target that mapped the sale of 25 products to assign a pregnancy score to individual customers knew better than the father. The teenager was pregnant and the algorithm had not made a mistake.

In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, author Yuval Noah Harari claims that voting in an election will be done more efficiently by algorithms rather than humans since the latter can easily be swayed with slogans and jingles. But a software that tracks our emotions, interests and preferences over a longer period of time can make a much more rationalized decision.

While we ponder over what to compromise: the efficiency of the algorithm or the personal data breach, it is imperative to understand that these data can be extremely beneficial to the government to control diseases, urban planning to population management etc. Hence, no matter how much we feel violated, data is the future. The best approach would be to come up with stringent laws regarding data collection, sharing and selling it by private entities. Moreover, people should be much more cautious while using any form of social networking sites and apps that require user data.

Soura Poddar

Hello! Myself Soura, resident of 'City of joy', a structural analyst by profession, petrol head and a huge fan of Manchester United. Have a natural flair for cooking and an amateurish vocalist and guitar player. Cheerio!!