Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Governance Threat Is Not Russians, Cambridge Analytica, Etc, But Surveillance Capitalism Itself...,


newstatesman |  It’s been said in some more breathless quarters of the internet that this is the “data breach” that could have “caused Brexit”. Given it was a US-focused bit of harvesting, that would be the most astonishing piece of political advertising success in history – especially as among the big players in the political and broader online advertising world, Cambridge Analytica are not well regarded: some of the people who are best at this regard them as little more than “snake oil salesmen”. 

One of the key things this kind of data would be useful for – and what the original academic study it came from looked into – is finding what Facebook Likes correlate with personality traits, or other Facebook likes. 

The dream scenario for this would be to find that every woman in your sample who liked “The Republican Party” also liked “Chick-Fil-A”, “Taylor Swift” and “Nascar racing”. That way, you could target ads at people who liked the latter three – but not the former – knowing you had a good chance of reaching people likely to appreciate the message you’ve got. This is a pretty widely used, but crude, bit of Facebook advertising. 

When people talk about it being possible Cambridge Analytica used this information to build algorithms which could still be useful after all the original data was deleted, this is what they’re talking about – and that’s possible, but missing a much, much bigger bit of the picture.

So, everything’s OK then?

No. Look at it this way: the data we’re all getting excited about here is a sample of public profile information from 50 million users, harvested from 270,000 people. 

Facebook itself, daily, has access to all of that public information, and much more, from a sample of two billion people – a sample around 7,000 times larger than the Cambridge Analytica one, and one much deeper and richer thanks to its real-time updating status. 

If Facebook wants to offer sales based on correlations – for advertisers looking for an audience open to their message, its data would be infinitely more powerful and useful than a small (in big data terms) four-year-out-of-date bit of Cambridge Analytica data. 

Facebook aren’t anywhere near alone in this world: every day your personal information is bought and sold, bundled and retraded. You won’t know the name of the brands, but the actual giants in this company don’t deal in the tens of millions with data, they deal with hundreds of millions, or even billions of records – one advert I saw today referred to a company which claimed real-world identification of 340 million people. 

This is how lots of real advertising targeting works: people can buy up databases of thousands or millions of users, from all sorts of sources, and turn them into the ultimate custom audience – match the IDs of these people and show them this advert. Or they can do the tricks Cambridge Analytica did, but refined and with much more data behind them (there’s never been much evidence Cambridge Analytica’s model worked very well, despite their sales pitch boasts). 

The media has a model when reporting on “hacks” or on “breaches” – and on reporting on when companies in the spotlight have given evidence to public authorities, and most places have been following those well-trod routes. 

But doing so is like doing forensics on the burning of a twig, in the middle of a raging forest fire. You might get some answers – but they’ll do you no good. We need to think bigger.