Data Capture

While some are still obsessed with ways to bend the rules to rig the election results through proportional representation, the digital age voter profiling companies like Cambridge Analytica are using targeted manipulation of voters to rig the outcome of election results

Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, which was accused in March by a whistleblower of having illegally captured the personal data of some 87 million users of Facebook, has raised fundamental questions regarding the need for regulation for personal data protection. According to the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica (CA) has developed a software program to data mine citizens to predict voting patterns and influence through targeted ads their voting decisions. CA’s role in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Leave-EU Campaign in the UK is mired in controversy and is being criminally investigated in the two countries. The global scale of the personal data capture has had far reaching fallouts.

While testifying before the UK Parliament at the end of March, Christopher Wylie said the CA had inter alia worked extensively in India. There are media reports, this week, in India of proposals made by CA to the Congress Party in August 2017 to spearhead the Congress campaign for the 2019 general elections. Cambridge Analytica suggested using Facebook data for ‘influencing the voter intention’. Congress has denied having ever hired the services of CA.

Wake up call

The mining of voters’ psychographic data (classification according to their attitudes, aspirations and other psychological criteria) by companies such as CA raises the question of insidious manipulation of voters’ decisions through targeted ads. While some are still obsessed with ways to bend the rules to rig the election results through proportional representation, the digital age voter profiling companies like CA are using targeted manipulation of voters to rig the outcome of election results and sap the democratic process. The world needs to wake up to the dangers of the digital age threats to democracy and the process of free and fair elections.

The revelation by Facebook of Russians’ interference in the US 2016 presidential elections through targeted ads to Americans has heightened such apprehensions. There are also fears that foreign governments may already be in possession of databanks of Facebook users through third party data harvesters. The US Congress is therefore considering ways to regulate Facebook’s and other digital political ads.

Mark Zuckerberg’s, the CEO of Facebook, testimony in front of two US Senate Committees and a Committee of the House of Representatives exposed the fact that the protection of social media platform users’ private data and privacy is an unchartered territory. The risks associated with such an open ended situation are too dire to be left in its present largely unregulated state. While operators such as Facebook recognize the need for regulation, they have been fighting privacy laws which could limit their business space…”


The lack of protection of users’ personal data and rights has also raised disquieting questions of other firms having also surreptitiously harvested users’ personal data from social media platforms through third party apps.

The business model of Facebook and other social media platforms is based on advertising and on ways to analyse users’ personal data for fine-tuned and targeted ads. This begs the question as to why Facebook and other social media companies are allowed to share users’ data with third parties without any oversight by the authorities. The extent and depth of data mining carried by Facebook and other social media platforms and the manner this treated data is marketed in a targeted manner to a diverse range of interested ‘clients’ require more transparency and the protection of the personal data and rights of social media platform users. It must be highlighted that data on such parameters as the behaviour, interests, identities and location of users, etc., represent prime selling material to advertisers who in essence pay the bills of the social media companies.

We must remember that there are some 2.1 billion users of Facebook. The growing evidence is that there is a patent disregard for users’ privacy and data. Users therefore need to review the way they use social media platforms. Facebook already faces a lawsuit for using facial recognition software and storing such data without the consent of users.

The public outcry on the misuse of personal data has led to some corrective actions. Facebook has improved the way users secure their privacy settings, cut the amount of data that are shared with third parties and agreed to be transparent about the data being garnered and to vet suspect third party apps.

Dire risks

Mark Zuckerberg’s, the CEO of Facebook, testimony in front of two US Senate Committees and a Committee of the House of Representatives last week exposed the fact that the protection of social media platform users’ private data and privacy is an unchartered territory. The risks associated with such an open ended situation are too dire to be left in its present largely unregulated state. While operators such as Facebook recognize the need for regulation, they have been fighting privacy laws which could limit their business space. There is an imperative need for transparency and accountability in the manner tech companies operate.

However, legislators must first understand and fully fathom the world and business of digital data and the immense scope of operation of tech companies before regulating the way firms operate in the digital economy and assuring the protection of users’ data and privacy. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which requires companies to obtain consent to gather and share users’ data will come into force in May 2018. This is a first step but the road to a comprehensive regulatory framework which tightens the many loose ends of the world of digital data has still a long way to go. It has to be urgently tackled with thoughtful and comprehensive initiatives at the earliest.

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 Commemorating Nakba

Two million Palestinians are confined in the Gaza strip for more than a decade by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. They suffer from shortages of such basic amenities as electricity and water and yearn for a free Palestinian State. Their abject conditions of living and the absence of any concerted action by the world powers, bent on pursuing their narrow geopolitical interests in the Middle East, to end the longstanding conflict opposing Israel and the Palestinians has led to the current wave of protests by Palestinians.

On 30 March 2018, they launched a six-week protest campaign on the Gaza-Israel border to demand that Palestinian refugees who fled the country in 1948 and their descendants be allowed to return to Israel. The protest campaign is planned to last till 15 May, the Nakba Day or the Day of Catastrophe which marks the exodus of some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled from their homes and lands during the 1948 Palestinian war. In the two weeks of the protests, some 34 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces using live bullets amidst condemnations by human rights organizations and United Nations Security Council Members.

Alienation

The desperate protests epitomize the growing frustration and sense of alienation of the Palestinians at being despoiled of their rights and lands through increasingly hard line Israeli policies such as building illegal settlements or appropriating land in Palestinian occupied territory, dictated by ultra-nationalist, ultra-orthodox and right wing religious parties. These parties which have been spawned by party list proportional representation hold successive Israeli coalition governments having flimsy majorities, to ransom and snuff any possibility of a fair peace settlement.

70 years after the birth of Israel in1948, Palestine’s narrative of woe, revolt and elusive statehood continues unabated amidst the deep divisions among the Arab countries. When will the world powers and countries jockeying for supremacy in the Middle East cauldron realize that an independent and free Palestine will greatly help defuse the increasingly explosive situation and be a catalyst for peace in the region?

 


* Published in print edition on 20 April 2018

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