Martin Horwood writes…The real issue about Trump, Facebook’s ‘data breach’, why The Observer missed the point and Liberals should care

The Observer‘s front page today lays into Facebook for a massive ‘data breach’ in which 50 million Americans’ data were harvested by the infamous Cambridge Analytica and used with great effect to target Trump messaging at US voters. They “built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons” their whistleblower Christopher Wylie is quoted as saying.  It was a powerful tool for a campaign based on fear and paranoia.  Little surprise then that Cambridge Analaytica is also being investigated by the Office of the Information Commissioner and by the Electoral Commission in the UK in connection with their work on the Brexit referendum.

But the main Observer story oddly misses the point. It focuses on how long it took Facebook to own up to the ‘breach’ and suspend Cambridge Analytica’s access to the service.  It describes the accessing of the data itself as “one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches”.

But it wasn’t.  And that’s not the importance of this story.

Anyone can harvest data from the web.  I harvest it when I can’t remember someone’s birthday or their kids’ names.  The Lib Dems harvest it indirectly when they use targeted Facebook advertising.  My engagement team in a previous job harvested it using smart algorithms to find possible engagement targets, ironically, to promote better data, openness and transparency.  The point is that all this information is out there and – a point confusingly referred to in the Observer piece – platforms like Facebook don’t regard it as their data but their users’ (“it may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided”).  Facebook’s suspension of CA appears to be because of technical breaches to their terms of use, particularly the sale of data to third parties.

The real risk in all this is in the use to which this kind of big data can now be put. Mass harvesting followed by sophisticated modelling can now put very particular and individual information to use in support of data user’s objectives.  It’s not new in principle.  When I was in charity fundraising, models told me that people who ticked ‘enjoy going to the pub’ in consumer surveys were more likely to donate so I bought that list from the survey company.  But the scale and sophistication of modern big data analysis, modelling and individualised targeting makes it a much bigger issue.

Facebook themselves do it.  Their advertisers do it.  Financial institutions are actively considering doing it to make life-changing decisions about people’s personal finances and may already be doing so. Terrorists could do it if they could muster the analysis. Foreign intelligence agencies can do it. Political campaigns of any stripe can do it – and did so in our last two General Elections, completely undermining the hilarious idea that local constituencies observe a spending limit in the region of £10,000 each.  ‘National’ campaigns use Facebook (and indeed many other media) to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in individual seats, a massive loophole in election law that will always disproportionately benefit the richest party.

And of course governments can do it. China is using its control of domestic social media and state data sources to develop a system of social surveillance and control that makes 1984 look like a description of nursery school.

Policymakers haven’t kept up. The European Union has long championed the rights of data users to fair processing of their data – inconvenient for the direct marketing industry but good for civil liberties (and yet another reason we’re right about Brexit). Liberal Democrats have traditionally championed a Digital Bill of Rights within the UK.  A good instinct although I have vainly pointed out at repeated conferences that it’s daft to try to ban our own intelligence services from collecting any mass data at all when everyone else is doing it – including the party itself.

As with many other imminent threats to our wellbeing, from financial instability to climate change, it is fanciful to imagine that nation states can tackle this issue alone.  We need stronger global action and Britain’s diplomatic muscle, technical expertise and libertarian instincts should make it a natural leader.  This is obviously at odds with the current zeitgeist of selfish isolationalism. But it’s why the Lib Dem international policy working group I’ve been chairing is proposing we put both both human rights and technology at the forefront of future foreign policy.

* Martin Horwood was LibDem MP for Cheltenham 2005-15 and international affairs spokesperson for the parliamentary party. He is currently chairing the party’s national policy working group on Britain’s Place in the World but is writing in a personal capacity.

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12 Comments

  • John Marriott 18th Mar '18 - 5:37pm

    Is democracy being undermined by social media? Is this the inevitable price we must pay for our own self indulgence as technology continues more and more to control our lives?

  • David Blake 18th Mar '18 - 6:13pm

    Facebook is also a useful source for family historians, especially when you haven’t seen many of your cousins for ages.

  • John Marriott 18th Mar '18 - 7:13pm

    So are sites like Ancestry etc., and far more discreet

  • John Marriott 19th Mar '18 - 11:30am

    It just shows how out of touch I must be with mankind. Here’s another article on LDV, which makes a strong point but fails to excite contributors! So, I’ll have another go.

    I believe that, when mobile phones started to become popular, makers decided to offer texting as an add on. Now it would appear that this facility has largely supplanted the human voice and, with technological advances, has enabled sites such as Facebook and Twitter seemingly to monopolise lives. How often do my wife and I go out for a meal to see young couples nearby avidly texting rather than actually talking to each other, not to mention young parents and their offspring each other as they clutch their iPhones? What kind of interaction is that?

    No wonder dubious organisations have latched on to this captive audience to exert an influence which has its echos in Orwell’s 1984. I know how addictive iPhones and iPads can be – I’m forever reaching for my tablet when I’m at home! The worrying thing for someone who refuses to do Facebook, Twitter or any of the other seductive sites around, is how easily these sites can apparently be used to influence opinion without many of their users realising that the view of the world they represent can be dangerously biased and – dare I say it.- illiberal.

  • “avidly texting rather than actually talking to each other”

    How do you know they are not utilising the privacy of text to avoid being overheard?

  • John Marriott 19th Mar '18 - 2:15pm

    Maybe, Jennie; but what an odd way to conduct your affairs. When my son or daughter in law start doing it when my wife and I are around and trying to have a conversation with them I have to say that we find that rather insulting. Perhaps it’s a generation thing. Mind you, judging from you photo, you’re a bit younger than me, so I guess it won’t matter that much as people like me won’t be around much longer so texting can inherit the earth! On the other hand, if they don’t want to be heard, they could talk quietly (which some people find difficult to do these days), couldn’t they, rather than wear out their thumbs?

  • Richard Underhill 19th Mar '18 - 7:18pm

    My boss was doing it during a personnel interview. I wanted to complain but perhaps what she was doing was checking on when she needed to collect Kids from school, but maybe it would have been better to have the interview at a different time of day.

  • John Marriott 19th Mar '18 - 7:52pm

    Richard, I would call that rudeness; but I guess I’m old fashioned. Mind you, given the circumstances, had I been in your place, I would have kept my opinions to myself. Sad though.

  • Andrew Tampion 22nd Mar '18 - 4:39am

    While the Cambridge Analytica incident isn’t directly referred to anyone who didn’t hear it might want to listen to the most recent episode of The Digital Human on BBC Radio 4.

  • I agree but believe there is a more fundamental question we need to answer too. Over 20 years selling consumer targeting technology to large corporations and marketing agencies I have witnessed a massive increase in capability. This huge leap, in common with other amazing scientific advancements like stem cell research, presents society with new unresolved ethical questions lagging behind the science. The use of wide ranging digitally collected massive quantities of personal data combined with highly sophisticated analytics in real-time, is a hugely different force from selecting broad groups of customers based on demographic characteristics from a database updated once a month. Its hard to find a good analogy, but lets go for the difference between a canon and a guided missile. I have often heard it said by practitioners that they can predict your response, better than you can predict it yourself. Given this, and in light of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook allegations would it not be reasonable to consider the ethics of this new marketing capability in the way we considered the ethics of subliminal marketing in the past? Using such techniques requires special consideration for use in political campaigns, but also asks ethical questions about extent of use in commerce too.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Apr '18 - 5:47pm

    John Marriott 19th Mar ’18 – 7:52pm I did keep my opinions to myself, but I do remember a Prime Minister (John Major) saying things that were not followed by departmental ministers at the time, leaving us to reply to letters from MPs and advise Treasury Solicitors on Judicial Reviews.

    The Observer on Sunday 8/4/2018 has mooted a new centre party. We should remember that Roy Jenkins’ objectives were either to be in government (hence gold as our party colour) or to cause such change in the Labour Party as to have the same effect. Radio Kent had a ‘phone in this morning (in the slot sometimes occupied by former MP Lembit Opik).
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/07/opportunity-knocks-for-new-party-will-anybody-dare-open-door
    My view was that the SDP was founded by four high calibre people and that the Labour MPs currently at odds with their party line are less prominent and less famous. As they said they were heavily dependent on bye-elections and were occupying a political space occupied by the Liberal Party, necessitating some deals over which opportunity would be taken by which party. UKIP prospered on proportional representation for the European Parliament, but has since declined as one Independent, ex-UKIP, councillor conceded. I mentioned Canada, but there was no traction. I think the BBC journalists were more interested in the future, but they were also stuck in a rut about Red-Blue politics which should shame them.

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