JK Rowling called it the “story of the year, if not the decade”! It was a story I briefly read about but batted away as I quickly got distracted by yet more Trump news. I couldn’t get away from it for long however, at 3am one morning I was scrolling through The Guardians top stories and read about the class-action lawsuit against Facebook. I was shocked.
A whistle-blower revealed to The Observer that a company called Cambridge Analytica, with two other companies harvested personal information from over 71 million peoples Facebook profiles. Both in the US and UK. They then used all this information to create political propaganda campaigns to try to predict and influence choices at major votes.
Cambridge Analytica was formed in 2013 and is owned by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, at the time it was being run by Donald Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon. In 2014 they used a system to harvest information from Facebook profiles to try to help them win the US Presidential election. It has also been used for the Brexit campaign.
What makes this story even more unbelievable, is that in 2015 Facebook found out that millions of its user’s information had been taken. Despite this, they failed to alert the users that had been affected. The New York Times have even said that they have found copies of the information harvested online.
So how exactly did they collect the data?
A company called Global Science Research (GSR) collaborated with Cambridge Analytica to create an app called thisisyourdigitallife. Thousands of users were paid to take a personality test, and get their data collected for academic purposes. However, Cambridge Analytica then continued to collect data from the participants Facebook friends. So, even if you didn’t use the app yourself, your data could still have been added into the data pool of millions of Facebook users.
British and US lawyers are now filing the class-action lawsuit against Facebook and the companies involved. The Electoral Commission in the UK is also investigating to see how big of a role Cambridge Analytica had on the EU referendum.
The revelations of how widespread this data breach is has caused outrage, but is it enough?
The first time I heard this story I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t even fazed. People have been talking about quitting Facebook and I have even thought about it. I just don’t know if I could actually bring myself to do this, even though I know my information can easily be harvested for reasons that could challenge the democracy we live in.
When I read in-depth about how they used people’s political beliefs and created advertisements to try to sway their vote my mouth dropped, it was 3am and I jumped on the group chat to spread the word. Even though my friends were just as shocked as I was, we NEVER talked about quitting Facebook, we just continued to chat on an app Facebook created… ironic.
I remember when I first got Facebook, I sat down with my Dad who had already joined and set up my profile. It was all so new and exciting, I definitely wasn’t thinking about my online privacy. Now, years later as I go about my daily digital life, I am stuck between choosing my early years of teenage naivety in regards to online privacy or, shutting down my profiles so I can keep my information to myself.
I mean it shouldn’t be a hard choice for me! I am very passionate about democracy, I strongly believe we all should have the right to make our own decisions about our countries future. I still remember the heartache I felt when I found out we had decided to leave the EU. Or when I woke up in the middle of the night to find out Donald Trump had won the presidency, and then continued to literally cry myself back to sleep. Yet, despite finding out that people’s opinions could have been changed due to one of the biggest data breaches in history, I still can’t bring myself to quit my digital life.
I have grown up in the bright lights of the digital age, and it’s become too important to my daily life I can’t imagine living without it. I, like many others, have the mindset that social media is fun and essential, why should we worry?
The more I learn about Cambridge Analytica however, the more I need to bring myself into the real world. Social media is no longer just ‘fun’ and ‘harm free’! It’s being used to undermine democracy, target political opinions and influence real-world events. We need to start exercising more caution as we wonder through the whirlpool of social media, we need to understand that our information is being mined and used to change our opinions.
If we truly cared about our privacy as much as we say we do, maybe we could take steps to change this. As of right now though, I don’t know how our privacy could be safe. No matter how dangerous it is, people (including me) can not just let go of their digital life, it has become too important to our daily existence .