The Russia Facebook Scandal Could Reshape How We Share Data

A groundbreaking law case could change how companies deal with data


This year and next are likely to be watershed years in how we collect, analyze, and share data. May 2018, specifically, is going to see a huge change across the world, as GDPR comes into force, which will fundamentally change the way that companies store and share the data they already have. However, there is a lesser known court case in the UK that could have a considerable impact on the knowledge people have about their data and how it’s used.

The case focusses on David Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York who is suing Cambridge Analytica, the company who managed the data in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Much of the case revolves around how the company used personal data in voter targeting during the election. The company created profiles for around 240 million Americans during the 2016 election and segmented them for specific campaigns, something which has been done for years, but has become considerably more complex this year after it was revealed that Facebook had sold ads to Russian accounts that were targeted to impact the US election. It is illegal for foreign actors to spend money or effort to influence a foreign election under various election laws.

Carroll has received some information from the company already, including the profile that was created on him during the election. According to Carroll ‘It was very strange and unsettling because they had given me ‘scores’ for different issues but I had no idea what they’d based this on.’ Cambridge Analytica had scored him 3/10 on ‘Gun Rights Importance’, 7/10 on ‘National Security Importance’ and ‘unlikely’ to vote Republican, but this alone didn’t explain much. It was the equivalent of asking for the recipe for a meal and being given half the ingredients and a picture of the finished product. The information given to Carroll did nothing to explain how Cambridge Analytica had come to these conclusions about him or how they were used, as he hadn’t implicitly discussed gun rights or national security implicitly online.

Cambridge Analytica have a fog around how they operate that means that almost any time they’re mentioned, it’s done so with a certain degree of scepticism, but the reality of this is that the decision of the court case could completely open up the way that companies reveal how they’ve come to certain decisions. Ravi Naik of Irvine Thanvi Natas, who is the lawyer overseeing the case said:

‘I’m a human rights practitioner and in the past most of my cases were national security issues, but increasingly it’s about data protection and the way people are affected by the misuse of their data. I see this as an issue affecting fundamental rights and it’s taking citizen activism to uncover what’s going on, to request data. I really hear echoes of the civil rights movement in people becoming more aware, more resistant and willing to fight.’

The reason that this case is able to take place is due to the company being based in the UK, which has considerably stricter data laws than the US. Cambridge Analytica was using US citizen’s data, but because it is a UK based company, it was analyzing it in the UK. Anybody who’s data is analyzed in the UK has the right to ask for the data the company holds on them to be released back to them. The reason for the lawsuit is that Cambridge Analytica refused this request, so it has been escalated to the UK court system.

One of the biggest issues surrounding the case is the allegations that the company bought anonymized data which they then de-anonymized and attached to the profiles of customers, something which is illegal when being used for political purposes in the UK, although in the US the practice is a little more murky. The ability to take anonymized information and suddenly make it personal again, if the rumors are true, creates a real issue for governments and companies around the world. The anonymization of data is key to the use of things like medical data and governmental data for several technological innovations, if it can’t be trusted to stay anonymous then it could do real damage to several important causes. Companies like Deepmind and medical research firms rely on to perform some of their most groundbreaking work.

Another key element of the case is the potential it has to show whether Russian attempts to influence the US election targeted specific demographics to help get Donald Trump elected as many commentators believe. It could go some way to showing how Russian accounts managed to target specific groups so accurately during the election, and with Facebook likely to release the information around the specific ads sold, this could prove another link between the Trump campaign and Russian attempts to get him elected. What is also important is the link to Facebook ad buying, as that act would be a clear breach of electoral law, if there is a clear link between the Facebook ad buys and the analysis from Cambridge Analytica then that would be a strong indication of some kind of collusion.

Given that Carroll has been a key expert in this case, providing information to the Senate Intelligence committee, there is little surprise that this is taking place because of the Russian hacking situation, but the implications are likely to go much further.

There will be a precedent set for organizations to reveal the methodology behind how they found specific information, how they build profiles around customers, and how they collect data around the people they’re targeting. It could effectively completely change the way that people see their data being used and many will be unhappy with what they find. It could essentially end up being similar to when people found out the truth about how their trainers are made in exploitative factories or how their diamonds came from child labor. For instance, a supermarket could be forced to show a consumer how it came to the decision that they would likely want to buy a specific product or how they acquired this information.

It is not too much of a leap to say that the use of data as it is today is like the wild west, a set of broad rules that are incredibly difficult to actually regulate. If this court case achieves what it sets out to do, it has the potential to change the game, putting in place a level of data transparency that has never been seen before. Regardless of whether the data provided from Cambridge Analytica proves or disproves any kind of Russian link to Trump’s campaign, the ruling is likely to have far reaching impacts on the data landscape. 

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