The FB and Cambridge Analytica scandal raises discomfiting questions about our relationship with technology and the implications for democracy and politics.
Well, it finally happened. The consequences of sharing our lives and ceding control of our privacy to big tech, which scholars such as Siva Vaidhyanathan and Zeynep Tufecki, and organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, had been warning us about for years. It finally welled up into a massive dataclysm.
Amid all the digital fingerpointing, the Cambridge Analytica CEO has been suspended and Mark Zuckerberg, after a few days’ silence, has finally issued a waffling non-apology.
The crux of the story, as revealed in The Guardian, is this: Facebook granted permission to a firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA), to use data, via an app, for a non-commercial personality quiz. But the app harvested not just their data but that of their connections as well, eventually collating information on about 50 million people. The data was commercialised for expressly political purposes, notably for influencing Americans to vote Trump in 2016 and to persuade people to vote to leave in Brexit vote.
Appropriately enough for a country that congratulates itself twice a week on being a rising global superpower, India, too, has found itself embroiled in the controversy. The BJP and the Congress have both accused each other of soliciting CA’s services while pleading their own innocence. An excellent Twitter thread by Jaydevan P.K., the co-founder of the media organisation FactorDaily, has detailed the workings of SCL India, a joint venture between Ovleno Business Intelligence, an Indian firm, and the London-based SCL Group, the parent firm of CA, in the Indian political sphere.
CA is but one face of SCL, the hydra-headed holding firm that has boasted of influencing election outcomes across the world, in often extremely unsavoury ways. CA itself, on its site, claimed to have worked with several Indian election campaigns, for both the Congress and the BJP, a charge both parties have denied, respectively, through Amit Malviya, BJP’s IT cell employee, and Divya Spandana, a Congress spokesperson.
Telecom minister R.S. Prasad sounded a bugle call for war against Facebook if it were to be found guilty of meddling in the Indian electoral process. Zuckerberg could be brought to stand trial in India through the formidable powers of the IT Act.
The scandal raises several deeper and discomfiting questions about our relationship with technology, radical changes in ideas of privacy and ownership of the self, and the implications of the new data-driven order for democracy and politics.
These issues can be understood in terms of several concentric circles of facts and their ripple effects.
Facebook, but other prominent technology companies like Google as well, are essentially firms that exist at the juncture of surveillance and advertising, each one enabling the other. That they may provide a range of services, some of which do not seem directly related to the business of either surveillance or advertising, is incidental. Their business model is one that depends on sophisticated surveillance capabilities that allow them to gather vast amounts of data on the basis of which they are able to sell audiences to advertisers. Crucially — and this brings us to the next concentric circle — they have been the main (but not the only one) driver of a radical shift in ideas of privacy in our times, with the de facto implication that users of the internet (or even non-users) do not really own their digital selves.
As Aaron Bady notes in his seminal and prescient essay, ‘World Without Walls’, we now live in a world in which privacy can no longer be thought of as something that was naturally protected by material barriers or distance. A post-9/11 security environment, combined with the reach of the internet, and sophisticated tools like predictive policing, have turned this notion of privacy inside out, and regulatory mechanisms either at the national or global level remain grossly inadequate for dealing with the challenges posed by this new state of affairs. Curiously and oddly, India’s attorney general, K.K. Venugopal, has used precisely the obsolete definition of privacy to defend the security of Aadhaar-related data in front of the Indian Supreme Court.
Venugopal’s comments point to the final concentric circle of drastic change, one with particularly serious implications for a society like India. That change is the commodotization of every aspect of social life by both the state and private sector, in both conflict and collusion with each other. The project of turning our digital selves into a source for monitoring and profit may well come to haunt modern societies, since they run the grave risk of undermining individual rights and autonomy. That is the lesson that the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as much as the ongoing Aadhar fiasco, should bear for India.
Rohit Chopra is an associate professor at Santa Clara University.