The (Eugene) Register-Guard)
Reports of the British data firm Cambridge Analytica collecting personal information from more than 50 million Facebook users has created a furor, and the implications are frightening.
It also should not be surprising that social-media data are being used in this way.
Investigative journalist Jane Mayer laid out the scenario in an article she wrote for The New Yorker magazine a year ago about the machinations of the secretive billionaire Robert Mercer. Mercer’s interests include influencing federal elections.
His targets have included Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, who Mercer has spent years (unsuccessfully) trying to unseat.
Influencing elections means influencing voters, and technology, not always intentionally, has created highly sophisticated tools for doing that.
A researcher in the psychology department at the University of Cambridge, for example, “had circulated personality tests on Facebook and, in the process, obtained huge amounts of information about users,” Mayer said. “From this data, algorithms could be fashioned that would predict people’s behavior and anticipate their reactions to other online prompts.” Such information is very useful to someone attempting to influence elections.
The Cambridge researcher, Michal Kosinski, wanted the information for strictly academic purposes, however, and felt that repurposing it for commercial use was unethical, and possibly illegal, Mayer said.
Others in his field were not so concerned with such niceties. A private voter-profiling firm, Cambridge Analytica, was founded in 2013 to do this kind of data mining and analysis, with Mercer as a major investor.
Last week, Cambridge was in the news for just the sort of behavior that Kosinski had warned against. It had collected private information that could be used to influence voter behavior from the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission, The New York Times reported, to be used in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. .
Facebook is in hot water — and deservedly so — for not protecting users’ information and for initially downplaying the whole snooping-and-manipulating scheme when it was exposed by the Times.
Cambridge Analytica is now facing parliamentary and regulatory investigation in Britain. In the United States, congressional investigators are allegedly examining the company’s role in the Trump campaign. More importantly, special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into it.
But regulatory and governmental processes move slowly. In the meantime, Cambridge Analytica is still sitting on all the information it collected on tens of millions of America voters.
This should be a giant flashing-red warning sign to users of social media.
The use of technology to connect people has greatly outpaced the development and installation of safeguards against the abuse and misuse of information posted online. It also has outpaced many consumers’ understanding of these risks.
At a bare minimum, all those using Facebook or other social media should be taught how to protect their information from those they don’t want, or intend, to have it. On Facebook, for example, a starting point is checking the privacy settings. (Click on the downward arrow at the upper right of the screen, then click on “Settings.” Next click on “Privacy” in the left column of the page.)
There are no real guarantees for the average person that information they post on social media will never end up in the hands of someone they don’t want to see it.
But until regulators are able to catch up with the realities of online communication, consumers will need to be their own best defenders of their privacy.