The weaponization of data mining

The weaponization of data mining
As more details emerge on how Cambridge Analytica used data mining to manipulate the 2016 US Presidential elections, Facebook continues to reel under the controversy..

As more details emerge on how Cambridge Analytica used data mining to manipulate the 2016 US Presidential elections, Facebook continues to reel under the controversy.

Prominent personalities such as the founder of Whatsapp Brian Acton has called on to people to delete Facebook.

Background

Cambridge Analytica LLC (CA) emerged as one of the most successful political consulting company in the recent years. It is a privately held company that combines data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. Formed in 2013, a year later the company became involved 44 US political races. It is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager who supports many politically conservative causes.

The company uses personal data acquired from a number of sources, including Facebook, to create micro-targeting advertisements designed to influence opinions. In a recent exposé by UK’s Channel News 4, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica has been involved in a number of political campaigns across the world. High ranking officials were caught on tape claiming that they do “a lot more” than just investigation, alluding to blackmail and using sex workers to create scandal. Cambridge Analytica CEO Nix also told an undercover investigator that he used a number of British and Israeli companies to carry out his work.

The 2016 presidential elections

The consensus among the intelligence agencies in the US is that Russia conducted an “influence” campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Russia is said to have hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal email account of John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The data obtained from these hacks were allegedly forwarded to Wikileaks. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were used effectively to depict Hillary Clinton negatively.

Analysis

In March 2018, scandal erupted when media reported that Cambridge Analytica used personal information acquired from Facebook, without users' permission. It emerged that the personal data of millions of users was not only breached but used to create psychological profiles that could be manipulated. 

An external researcher was able to gain access to the information on behalf of Cambridge Analytica by noting it was for academic purposes. In response, Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform. The Guardian further reported that Facebook had known about this security breach for two years but had done nothing to protect its users.

Since the scandal came to light, the value of Facebook shares has dramatically dropped and the hashtag #DeleteFacebook has begun trending on other social media channels such as Twitter. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton is among the prominent voices that piped in to note, “It’s time. #DeleteFacebook.” Acton left Whatsapp after it was acquired by Facebook in 2014. He added, “"We all moved on from MySpace. We can move on from Facebook too."

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook has meanwhile apologized for the company’s actions. “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” Zuckerberg wrote. He noted that the company has already changed some of the rules that enabled the breach, but added: “We also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”.

In the meantime, more incriminating reports have begun emerging on how Cambridge Analytica worked to undermine the candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton. One of the executives of the company told undercover reporters that the organization had been responsible for popularizing the “Crooked Hillary” phrase.

Cambridge Analytica chief data officer Alex Tayler was shown describing how the firm helped Mr. Trump to victory in 2016. "When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes but won the electoral college vote, that's down to the data and the research," Tayler said.

A spokesman for the company has lashed out at the implication the company claimed to be behind Donald Trump’s victory. "CA has never claimed it won the election for President Trump. This is patently absurd. We are proud of the work we did on that campaign and have spoken in many public forums about what we consider to be our contribution to the campaign".

Assessment

Our assessment is that it has become clearer how technology companies have begun weaponizing personal data of millions across the world. Due to the scandal, Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that he was willing to consider having the social channel monitored. Data breaches have become a massive threat to humanity in the 21st century and it is imperative for governments to address the crisis.

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