Based in London, united kingdom. working as a software engineer for palantir technologies. thoughts and ideas expressed are my own.

Is Cambridge Analytica a threat to democracies?

Is Cambridge Analytica a threat to democracies?

If you think Cambridge Analytica is a threat to democracies, you’re looking at the wrong bogeyman.

 

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“To me, art is simply a way to provide people with different perspectives on the same thing.”
— Anya Lee

If you think Cambridge Analytica is a threat to democracies, you’re looking at the wrong bogeyman. There are tons of companies that do what CA does: create large-scale data sets of demographic information, sift through it to find personal identifiers, join the data sets together to make profiles of individuals, and then analyze the profiles and target the smallest demographic set that they can. It’s called “marketing”, most of the time.

The new twist is that personal identifiers are now available in so many data sets — the Equifax breach, for instance — that the profiles and the learning models that can be built are extremely predictive. In the absence of any real data protection regulations in the US, any moron can start an online business, sell something to a million customers, and create a new dataset for someone to steal and sell to marketing firms.

Facebook’s the real bad actor in this particular case, both for publishing personally-identifiable data sets to anyone who was willing to pay them for it (except for the trick involving the app, Cambridge Analytica used Facebook’s API as intended) and especially for allowing individual targeting of content that wasn’t even identified as advertising.

Is targeted marketing a threat to democracies? It has been for over a century. The use of mass media to shape public opinion at scale is intrinsically anti-democratic. It has been very successful. (See The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis’s remarkable four-part documentary on the life and work of Edward Bernays.)

Cambridge Analytica is a minor player in the current digital-marketing/profiling-individuals-at-scale space. They’re openly chaotic-evil, and they lie a lot, which makes them good villains. They’re also a wholly-owned subsidiary of a much larger, much harder to pin down firm called SCL Group. And they’re rank amateurs, especially when you compare them with bigger heavyweight firms that mimic CA’s microtargeting techniques.

Case in point, even with the massive sentiment of users who said they would delete Facebook, only 8% of people surveyed said they actually will. Most people simply cannot live without Facebook. As the article notes, it’s become a “utility”, almost like water or electricity.

But if Facebook is a utility, what is Google!?

Will Google be the next company in trouble since the CA scandal broke?

I think not. Google may receive a backlash, but it will not be in “trouble”, as it is almost certain absolutely nothing will change. They could conceivably be in a great deal of trouble, if it were ever shown that, like Facebook, it was sharing users’ personally-identifiable information with third parties. Especially since, unlike Facebook, its privacy policy indicates that it will not do this. But if Google keeps to its privacy policy (and why on earth wouldn’t it?), it won’t face anything like what Facebook is facing now. Indeed, if Facebook had a privacy policy like Google’s, none of this would have happened. It’s worth asking why it doesn’t.

But.

Google is the most used search engine in the world. In a world we here we ask practically everything to the internet, Google dominates with a market share of 91.25%. Its closest competitor, Bing, has an 3.08% share (reference). It’s the world’s most visited website. It operates the world’s largest video website. It owns the world’s most used smartphone OS. They are so far ahead in maps. Even Apple, the most cash rich company in the world, could not beat them at maps. Gmail, Docs, Drive. Unlimited space for storing your photos. Google Enterprise has over three million companies using G-Suite. It also has its fingers in cloud computing, with brand name companies like Spotify, Coca-Cola, and even General Mills, running their services off the Google cloud. When Google temporarily went down in 2013, internet usage dropped by40%. Just imagine what the number would be if that happened today.

So what if Google does actually come under fire, they will say Mea Culpa, and not do a damn thing. Ask yourself: “Can I stop using Google products for the rest of my life?”. Your answer will indicate whether or not Google will be in trouble.


Modern software engineering

Modern software engineering