Apr 2nd, 2018, 12:45 PM

Life's a (Data) Breach

By Henry Hardwick
"They don't think it be like it is, but they do." - Oscar Gamble. Image Credit: Henry Hardwick
The identities we construct, the lives we live, and the things we share online.

Trump 2016: the start of 'six degrees of separation' when it comes to problems. Leaving no stone unturned, our Commander in Chief seems to be the chief catalyst in every noteworthy scandal- and Cambridge Analytica is no exception. If you're like a majority of the students that I've encountered, it's been nothing more than a funny little mystery term left floating around for the last week. Something about Facebook. Something to name drop. Something complicated but probably important.

Of course, with Facebook reported as having "2.2 billion monthly active users" as of late 2017, even a soul-crushing case of 'senioritis' couldn't justify my own ignorance. It's no surprise to hear that Cambridge Analytica promised "cutting edge 'psychographic profiles'" to the Trump campaign. "Down the rabbit hole," it starts to get a bit uncanny with promises of analyzing "voter's personalities better than their own friends could." Now, targeted ads are nothing new. One day I want to buy a French travel press on Amazon. The next, my Youtube advertisements are filled with more coffee than a Starbucks latte (P.S. that's not setting the bar very high). For those who don't mind being reminded of their every search inquiry, such ads aren't the end of the world. 

Then again, just like any other scandal, the immediate issue is a vehicle for a greater underlying problem in society. Having gathered the information through a personality quiz application, the data wasn't collected from consenting active user demographics, but their friends' as well. While companies such as Facebook are often noted for having an ulterior business model beyond a social media platform, "the idea of grabbing up friend data was utterly anathema." With the data harvest consisting of everything from "Status" to "Photos," even the trending #DeleteFacebook on Twitter (an irony in-and-of itself) begs the question of where to draw the line in the digital age. With our technology and social media profiles practically extensions of ourselves, Cambridge Analytica's violation was beyond personal, which is saying a lot when it has already affected approximately 50 million users. Still, entering the realm of legality, what some called "a scam- and a fraud," others called "perfectly legal and within the limits of the terms of service."


"Everything not saved will be lost." - Nintendo "Quit Screen" Message. Image Credit: Henry Hardwick

Of course, data breaching is nothing new to politics. Back in the 1876 presidential election, Western Union Telegraph Company leaked a private message between favored candidate Samuel Tilden and the Democrat party to the New York Times in order to sway morale in favor of the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. By staying in the race and proceeding to lead by a single electoral vote, President Hayes' victory led Congress to "subpoena telegrams from both parties- an early instance of the federal government asking a private communications company to turn over multiple records." Furthermore, with Bell Telephone Company's compliance, "wiretapping becomes a kind of common law enforcement tool starting in the Prohibition Era." Even up until the 60s, the FBI was able to wiretap civil rights activists and supposed communists without a warrant.

Snowballing out of (our) control, data surveillance just never seemed like something worth discussing until I had to face it in my Senior Seminar: Media, Panic, and Scandal. During an analysis of the 2009 News of the World phone hack, opinions flowed like wine as the talk turned to privacy invasion. As an American, I never viewed my data as being vulnerable, just "out there." In response to the 9/11 attacks, President Bush and Congress enacted the USA PATRIOT Act (The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act) in 2001. Still, confessing that "my 'privacy' is something I take for granted" felt a bit odd, and admitting that potentially being monitored is "just a part of everyday life" seemed a little too dystopian.


"I am not paranoid, they're out to get me!" - The American (Freddie Trumper), Chess the Musical. Image Credit: Henry Hardwick

As if that wasn't enough, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden became a household name with his revelation of the extent of government surveillance in 2013. That's when AUP sophomore Maria Sarmiento had an epiphany: "it was made clear to me that privacy, just like our freedom, is something illusionary." Self-described as "a product of her surroundings," Maria says the only way to get past this rip in the national imaginary is to "become critical thinkers and investigators of everything that surrounds us."

That was the consensus of my peers in Seminar- my passive maintenance was met by their active skepticism. When it came to Halie Stevenson, she wasn't hit by Cambridge Analytica because she'd already distanced herself from Facebook. Looking at it from the perspective of a recreational 'private' Instagram user, she stated that the reasoning behind such was that she "knew that [she] was being manipulated and that, inherently, our data is being stored. [She] didn't find the tradeoff to be equal, and so [she] left Facebook. [She] finds the tradeoff for Instagram to be equal." Advocating for legal change, her fears of data mining aren't just a matter of what's shared on a screen, but "the ability to use psychology and buy data in order to buy the way we think."


"Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?" - William Shakespeare. Image Credit: Henry Hardwick

Sure, the Trump campaign bought the data, but what did they really do with it? Thanks to the almighty "algorithms," filter bubbles and echo chambers seem to nullify any potential sway in political ideology. If anything, Facebook and politics are a recipe for disaster - the 2016 election led to what's been dubbed a mass "political unfriending." Even with the Cambridge Analytica harvest, the 2016 presidential election proves that an election can't be swayed by data profiles alone - President Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million and the electoral college "landslide" wasn't nearly as he claimed. Still, Cody Campbell sees an immediate threat in the scandal as we're looking at the dawn of "a changing sociopolitical landscape" in which money and 'Big Data' come to meet in "devolving democracy into a corporatocracy."

Claiming that we can't be passive agents in the matter, freshman Kathleen Sharp warns that we have to be "hyper-aware of the tactics that companies use to exploit the public." Not just limited to how our data is seen and used, freshman and self-proclaimed "cynic" Elizabeth Bradley pointed out how the problem's much larger than simple exposure. Rather, social media manipulates everything from "the way we communicate to effecting self-esteem and even delving into our personal lives."

As for me, I'm as American as Mom's apple pie and teen pregnancy. I, for one, welcome our new media overlords. While I'd like to think that my privacy extends as far as what I set it to, sometimes that's just not the case. While I'd like to think that I possess my personal data in the same way I possess my personal property, the sad truth is that as a 20-something, I'm all too willing to exchange social responsibility for social validation. Still- here's to individuality, even when my favorite platform is practically just "little boxes made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same."


"This is my profile. There are many like it, but this one is mine." Image Credit: Henry Hardwick