Data disrupts democracy

Op-eds Opinions
Those Facebook profile pictures might be saying much more than you want them to. Graphic by Yimeng Bian, Graphics Contributor

The Cambridge Analytica files, which recently revealed the manner in which data analytics companies are able to influence elections, have caused stirs in many circles. Previous campaign strategies — which sought to contact voters in person — are now increasingly being shelved in favour of more modern, economical approaches. These days, it’s often cheaper to buy data online than to pay for cold-calling campaigners.

Digitally derived data is used to develop personal profiles of the users, which aid in targeting democratic stress points. Companies like Cambridge Analytica are able to coalesce the data that has been harvested from users, often without their understanding. We all sign the terms and conditions without any idea what it is we’re passing off as we do so. Now awareness is increasing about what information we give up with that click of a button.

But why should we care? So what if some companies know that you read the Martlet obsessively and have an interest in slacklining?

The data that is being harvested here is being sold to the highest bidder. It’s not the Elizabeth Mays and Jack Laytons who are able to purchase such statistics. It’s the Trumps and O’Learys. It’s another example of unequal opportunity leading to exponentially unequal outcome. This data mutes the voices of certain poorer demographics while amplifying the capacity for other more affluent echelons to influence our elections. This results in power magnification and harms people that are already marginalized.

In the recent American election, Trump’s campaign strategists aided him in his victory with  the process of ‘microtargeting.’ Microtargeting maximizes the impact of each dollar spent on advertising by statistically analyzing which areas of financial input would output the greatest electoral advance. Ridings clearly dominated by one party are largely ignored, while ‘swing states’ are fought over to the bitter end.

The easiest thing to do, of course, is to just log out.

Dr. Colin Bennett is a UVic professor who specializes in social implications of new information technologies.

“Trump used Facebook ads to target Hilary Clinton and to remind voters about her statements about African Americans,” Dr. Bennett explains, “which had the effect of suppressing the African American vote in key North American Mid-Western cities.”

This suppression in hotly contested areas was one of the factors that enabled Trump’s victory — a victory that came despite his receiving a minority of the popular vote.

Bennett reports that there’s an increasing trend in election methodology: parties think that if they have the better data then they’re going to win, he says. They aren’t always wrong.

In providing data to Facebook, Google, and other platforms, we become complicit in permitting this to occur. Very few people understand just how much data these companies have, or how it can be used. In case you’re interested, they know almost everything. Every time you use your account in association with these platforms they record every available minute detail of what it is you are doing.

A recently published article in the Guardian newspaper demonstrated just how much these platforms store, and as you might imagine, Google has the most. In that investigation, an average of 5.5 GB of data per person was held by Google, including every single physical location ever visited with location enabled, every single web search ever done, every single message you’ve ever sent.

That sounds pretty cool, right? Personally, I’m quite looking forward to being 80 someday and looking back wistfully through everything I ever did online. However, this data collection is dangerous. “You can’t define what’s relevant for these services to be collecting,” Dr. Bennett says. As a result, companies collect everything from everyone and sell for maximum profit.

In the case of the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK, and our own Health Canada system, data is collected each time you access health care. This data is anonymized and used for research purposes in order to progress the medical field, and to ensure that we have the highest quality of healthcare possible. Data is sifted clean of any personal identifiers and only used where it can be deemed strictly pertinent to the service that it was being collected for. Generally, collection is only permitted when there is a direct use for the data. Healthcare systems are examples of the correct application of data harvesting.

But, as we’ve seen, what Bennett calls the social media platform economy doesn’t conform to these ethical rules. Platforms entice users, then rip as much information as they possibly can from them, and sell it to the highest bidder with minimal oversight. Dr. Bennett describes the honey trap of  “GoogleWorld, where life is easier and better.”

Increasingly, governments are becoming aware of what it is that’s going on, and are taking steps to protect their citizens with new policies. While these are certainly steps in the right direction, many more are needed. In the meantime, it’s important to be aware of what it is you’re giving up online. While abandoning data may not impact you immediately, it could get another despot elected by allowing them to game the system we all helped to create.

“If students are not careful about how they set their privacy preferences,” says Dr. Bennett, “ and you’ve got to be careful, you’ve got to be diligent, you’ve got to continue to do this — then they will have their data harvested.”

The easiest thing to do, of course, is to just log out.

This article has been corrected to fix Dr. Colin Bennett’s name. We sincerely regret the error.

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