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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Harvesting the Whirlwind?

people silouetted in front of blue screens

people silouetted in front of blue screens

Perspectives on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Controversy

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

It’s the week after Facebook announced that it has suspended Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from its platform; the announcement preceded extensive media reports with new revelations in the ongoing Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-2016 Election saga. As you probably know by now, this story involves a mix of problematic academic research practices, problematic business practices, and problematic campaign practices—all of them involving both legal and ethical issues. Some academics and some media outlets (specifically The Observer) had been researching and reporting this story for a while now, but Facebook’s recent response brought a different magnitude of attention to this topic. Rather than recapitulate the latest developments, here is a brief collection of links to pieces that include the New York Times’ in-depth overview as well as several articles that raise important related considerations:

“How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions,” by Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore, and Carole Cadwalladr: "[Cambridge Analytica] had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work. So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents…. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.”

“What Took Facebook So Long?” by Alexis Madrigal: "Academic researchers began publishing warnings that third-party Facebook apps represented a major possible source of privacy leakage in the early 2010s. Some noted that the privacy risks inherent in sharing data with apps were not at all clear to users. One group termed our new reality ‘interdependent privacy,’ because your Facebook friends, in part, determine your own level of privacy.”

“The Long History of Computer Science and Psychology Comes Into View,” by Luke Stark: “As the Cambridge Analytica story shows, there’s a fine line between psychological civil engineering and psychological civil war. The behavioral, demographic, and personal information Facebook and other social media platforms now collect through what I call algorithmic psychometrics has the sensitivity of medical data, and should be treated as such by regulators around the world.”

“One Way Facebook Can Stop the Next Cambridge Analytica,” by Jacob Metcalf and Casey Fiesler: “This case raises numerous complicated ethical and political issues, but as data ethicists, one issue stands out to us: Both Facebook and its users are exposed to the downstream consequences of unethical research practices precisely because like other major platforms, the social network does not proactively facilitate ethical research practices in exchange for access to data that users have consented to share.”

Back in 2016, we also published an ethics case study focused on the data-collection practices of Cambridge Analytica and its partners: “Data Collection: ‘Harvesting’ Personalities Online.” Among other questions, we asked, “If you do have concerns about this practice, are they rooted in perceptions of fairness? The question of autonomy? Privacy rights? Other?” The questions still apply.

It bears noting, too, that the term “harvesting” has largely positive connotations: it suggests that such data-collection practices are almost natural, necessary, useful… But even back in the old days (last year?) when people still referred to data as “the new oil,” it was already clear that, at least when it came to the kind of very personal private data that entities like Facebook amassed from their users, most of us didn’t see ourselves as proud owners of personal oil wells. Instead, it was increasingly clear that we felt more like sheep—shorn of one layer of data only to generate more, to be sheared again… Except that in the context of social media, what’s being sheared (or “harvested”) is something much more personal and important, both to individual users and to the common good.

Photo by portal gda, cropped, used under a Creative Commons license

Apr 4, 2018

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