LIKE ANY tool, social media is a double-edged sword. One of the fallouts of the Edward Snowden disclosures of 2013 was confirmation that in today’s world, where there is a computer in every home and a mobile phone in every pocket, people everywhere are potentially subject to the State’s national security surveillance.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal, however, which now threatens the very existence of Facebook, shows how futile notions of “controls” and “safeguards” are when it comes to preventing abuse.
The State has long justified much of its electronic spying powers by arguing there are checks and balances in place. But the idea that a private firm can intercept and harvest information regardless of whether their actions are sanctioned by the State reveals just how hollow those assurances are. When it comes to modern social media and private information, it’s a case of the wild wild west.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s announcement of an intention to refer the Cambridge Analytica matter to the Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on National Security as well as to a parliamentary debate is a sign of the times we now live in. It is a welcome opportunity to debate a matter that is fundamental to our right to privacy.
While there is focus on what may have taken place in 2010, the scope of the inquiry and debate must be far wider than just one year. Cambridge Analytica is said to have done work in relation to US President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 as well as the Brexit leave campaign in the same year. It is not unreasonable to query, therefore, whether the firm played a role in our 2015 election as well.
But those finer details aside, the real issue is the fact that citizens must now wake up to the fact that social media and our modern information communications technologies are vulnerable to the unregulated harvesting of information. And this information is valuable. In the wrong hands it could do tremendous harm.
The information in question ranges from sensitive things like bank records and personal messages to the most banal things like recipes one searched for on the internet or one’s location at a given moment in time. All of this information can be used to build a profile of the end user and, with that, marketers – and others we now learn – can tailor approaches and messages to suit, with a greater likelihood of being persuasive.
There is some debate on the impact of activities based on harvested data. Cambridge Analytica also worked on the campaign of Ted Cruz, who hoped to be the US Republican party’s presidential candidate. He lost badly to Trump.
Still, the legal and ethical questions that arise are more fundamental than any historical inquiry as to impact. Which is why a parliamentary examination of our own laws – or lack thereof – will serve a useful purpose.