Your Data Goes Way Beyond Facebook

One of the big stories this morning is that Cambridge Analytica, the firm behind the Facebook data scandal around the 2016 election, is going bankrupt. The company has issued a statement, claiming they did nothing illegal:

“Despite Cambridge Analytica’s unwavering confidence that its employees have acted ethically and lawfully, which view is now fully supported by [a third-party audit], the siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers,” states the release. “As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business, which left Cambridge Analytica with no realistic alternative to placing the Company into administration.”

Of course, there’s a difference between something being lawful and ethical, and something being the right thing to do. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs behind Cambridge Analytica’s case, because in the end, it just doesn’t matter.

Why does it not matter? For one thing, the damage (whatever it was) has already been done. Even if what the firm did was illegal, it’s not like it’s going to change anything. There’s no big “Do Over” button for elections, so that ship has sailed.

But more important than that is the fact that all that data that Analytica may or may not have abused is still out there. Still being used and abused, and shuttering one firm might make the public feel better, but it does nothing for actually solving the problem.

This all makes perfect sense as soon as anyone stops to think about it. Every time you use Google, the company’s knowledge of you grows. It knows what you’re interested in. What you’re afraid of. What you search when no one’s around. Amazon knows what you shop for. What you search but don’t buy. Uber knows where you travel and when and how often. FitBit knows where you run and how you sleep. Your Echo is listening to every conversation you have around it, all the time.

Each of these things come with conveniences that make consumers tolerate them. It’s handy to just be able to ask your Echo a question and have it respond. And when you think of the normal things companies might do with the data (sell you more stuff, or at least market more stuff to you), it doesn’t seem so sinister on the surface.

But when data gets together, it starts to enable surprising things. For example, analysts can study the behavior of people on a large scale, and they begin to note predictors that indicate how someone will behave in any particular situation. They might see that people who like geckos are much more inclined to vote Republican than not. Or perhaps owners of Ford Mustangs have a propensity to like McDonald’s. At first, that seems quite innocent. It lets advertisers target their audience much more closely. McDonald’s can buy ads that go out just to Mustang owners. But as you think of the implications, you get a clearer picture of what can happen.

Future behavior of individuals at a large scale can be predicted by current behavior. And you don’t even need any data on the individual in question. You can build a character profile for a variety of types, and then ask a random person a few questions (“Do you own a Mustang?” “Do you like geckos?”) that seem unrelated to anything. But once you have those key indicators in place, you suddenly have a very good idea who that person is and how they would behave.

Even if Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple aren’t selling any of this information to anyone, the data is still there. Still waiting to be sifted through and applied. And sure, Google’s old motto is “don’t be evil,” but when you’re talking about data on this scale, sometimes it’s hard not to let a little evil creep into your business practices.

I’m not trying to say we should all go around with tin foil on our heads. I still use Siri and Alexa. I search using Google. I shop on Amazon. But I’ve been very relieved to see the public outcry over what went on with Cambridge Analytica. It’s great to see people take a stand on how data can and can’t be used. My worry is that this will be a single blip, and people will stop paying attention, brushing their hands off and thinking “Mission Accomplished” now that Analytica is gone.

Just because one company has gone under doesn’t mean the data is no longer there, waiting to be used. Continuing to press for laws that govern what data can and can’t be used for, and how it should and shouldn’t be stored, is important.

As if we needed one more thing to be worried about . . .

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