A few weeks ago, the Cambridge Analytica controversy blew wide open. There were speculations as to which political party might have engaged the services of this extremely intrusive data firm, to manipulate the election process and basically, subvert the natural process of democracy.
While it was an open fact, that Cambridge Analytica worked on the Donald Trump campaign back in the USA, here in India, many of us had a tough time wrapping our heads around what really had happened, what data was breached, how it was used, and more importantly, who used it.
The whistleblower in this case, Christopher Wylie, specifically mentioned the Congress party. Soon after, a video of Jamie Bartlett, journalist and author, interviewing Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix surfaced. In that video, a poster of the Congress party was seen hanging on Nix’ wall. While Congress tried to refute the charges with fantastical explanations, we got in touch with Jamie and tried to understand what that poster meant, how Cambridge Analytica functioned, and what this massive privacy breach meant for democracy world over.
Jamie rubbished the charges of the photograph being fabricated. He said that the only reason he had filmed the posters, was because it was interesting how Cambridge Analytica was working internationally. He also said that the chance of Congress’ poster being there because they might have been ‘potential clients’ seemed far-fetched considering Nix wouldn’t hang a potential clients poster, in his chamber, right above his head, in the same line as Donald Trump who they very openly campaigned for, in fact, they had 13 Cambridge Analytica people embedded in the Trump Campaign.
The conversation also revolved around what implications of technology are, and how perhaps the current form of democracy is not compatible with the digital age and the method employed by Cambridge Analytica.
Jamie was of the opinion that perhaps the Cambridge Analytica issue shook the world because of the fact that millions and millions of data points of millions of people were accessed without the consent of the users. Such data was then used to gain insight into the personality of users in order to target them more effectively with political campaigns.
Jamie explained how Cambridge Analytica makes something called a “universe” and each “universe” contains a certain section of people that can be targeted. For example, one universe would contain users who are mothers concerned about child safety. The other might contain a subsection of people who for example, buy American made vehicles since that also gives them an insight into who they may be likely to vote for.
The most concerning part was that the messages directed at “universe” and the other set of messages directed at a different “universe” may be completely contradictory. The subsections would never know what the others are being told by these political parties. Democracy functions on the notion that people largely receive the same message on the basis of which political decisions can be made. He feared that perhaps this style of political campaigning is the most detrimental to democracy.
He explained how innocuous data like facebook likes is collected to get unprecedented insight into every user’s personality. This insight is then used to appeal to basic instincts, fears, hopes, insecurities, etc, to target politically.
In the absence of privacy laws, Jamie also believed that we might be heading towards a surveillance state where a person, without even committing a crime might be in the government radar because all of this data profiling points towards the fact that the said individual might have the propensity to commit a crime.
While Jamie was unfamiliar with the political dynamics of India, when asked if the current Congress strategy, as it seen today might indicate Cambridge Analytica’s functioning, while maintaining caution, he did concede that if the assessment of Congress’ strategy was accurate, it might point towards exactly that considering Cambridge Analytica believes in breaking the population into easy to target factions too.
The entire interview can be heard below :
We thank Jamie for his precious time, and highly recommend reading his upcoming book “The People vs Tech”.