In the digital world one central paradox prevails – communication and surveillance are inseparable.
Pervasive, interactive networks enhance and extend monitoring processes because they gather information about user activity. Whenever we use electronic infrastructures such as wireless internet, smart card readers, credit card systems, ATMs and mobile phone networks private information is instantly collected.
Those who fully use the internet, social media, iPhone devices and multiple apps can expect to be fully surveilled.
Facebook best exemplifies the communication- surveillance paradox.
Over two billion users worldwide are prey to a business model which monetises their online activity.
The functionalities developed by Facebook`s managers and technical consultants encourage us to divulge ever more personal information about ourselves and others. The underlying purpose is to dissolve the distinction between the public and private spheres.
Facebook uses third party proprietary software to on- sell our demographics, consumer preferences, geographic location and conversational activity to major corporates, advertising agencies and market researchers.
Sometimes, individual Facebook users are secretly paid by commercial interests to promote products and elicit information from others.
With the demographic and psychographic information they have gained, corporates and advertisers pay Facebook for the right to micro-target users with ads, offers and enticements.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook`s institutional investors rort megaprofits from the free labour of Facebook users who are themselves the objects of unprecedented commercial surveillance.
Furthermore, as Edward Snowden`s revelations demonstrate, government surveillance carried out by the US National Security Agency and its `five-eyes` counterparts relies upon data mined from Facebook (as well as America–On–Line, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Pal Talk, Skype and Yahoo). This so called Prism programme collects, identifies and stores chatroom posts, emails, file transfers, internet telephone calls, log -in IDs, photos,videos and video conferencing footage. In short, online communication magnifies commercial and state-security surveillance.
The story begins with the Remain vs Brexit referendum of June 2016. In March and May last year Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr revealed that Nigel Farage`s Leave EU and Boris Johnson`s Vote Leave were supported by SCL elections/Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ respectively.
Despite outward appearances these data-analytic companies and the two Brexit campaigns were working together on a daily basis. They shared the same database even though different strategies were employed.
Leave EU targeted disaffected, working class Labour voters with images of refugee queues. Vote Leave spooked middle England by claiming that EU bureacrats were receiving 350, 000 pounds per week from the British taxpayer and assuming control of the National Health Service.
Behind the scenes stood SCL/Cambridge Analytica owner Robert Mercer – American hedge fund billionaire, bankroller of Donald Trump`s election campaign, colleague of his chief strategist Steve Bannon and Leave EU`s Nigel Farage.
Mercer funded research undertaken by the two data analytics companies for the two main Brexit campaign groups. Electoral law in the UK implicitly opposes co-ordination between disparate campaigns and expressly forbids campaign funding from foreign donors. However, the actual strategies of digital/social media election campaigns are beyond legal scrutiny. Thus, Cambridge Analytica advanced Leave EU`s social media campaign by attracting supporters to its Facebook page and interviewing almost 500,000 Britons online.
From the demographic and psychographic information gleaned, different messages could be tailored to different voters. Such techniques were refined for Donald Trump`s 2016 election campaign, a process exposed by recent investigations from the Observer, the Guardian , Channel 4 and by the damning testimonies of former Cambridge Analytica insiders – Christopher Wylie and Brittany Kaiser.
It is now evident that Cambridge Analytica harvested the Facebook profiles of US voters in order to predict and influence their choices.
To this end Cambridge University academic Aleksandr Kogan built a data collecting app called thisisyourdigitallife through his private company Global Science research and in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica.
Approximately 320,000 US voters were paid $2-5 dollars to take a personality test that required them to log in with their Facebook account.
Individuated test results were paired with Facebook data such as likes ,dislikes and other personal information. Crucially, Kogan`s app based questionnaire also collected information about the test takers` network of friends.
Altogether, Facebook data was obtained from more than 50 million users. Algorithims combined the individuated Facebook data with other sources such as voter records to construct demographic/psychographic profiles. Individuals in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennysylvania and Florida could then be sent customised campaign ads and messages.
Potential Trump supporters were encouraged to vote Republican while potential Clinton supporters were dissuaded from voting at all.
This micro-targetting of voters was not new; President Obama`s 2012 re-election campaign pioneered the process. By 2016 ,however, the scale and precision of data-analytics had advanced considerably, especially after the June Brexit referendum. Zuckerberg`s claim that the Trump campaign controversy was merely a one-off breach of third party data protocols should fool nobody.
In 2003 he built a website that allowed Harvard undergraduates to compare and rate the attractiveness of their fellow students and rank them accordingly. Student ID photos were harvested without permission and Zuckerberg was accused by the University authorities of breaching security, copyrights and individual privacy. Overall, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook imbroglio is not just a matter of voter manipulation or `dirty politics`.
What we have here is the poisoning of electoral democracy on an industrial scale.
So, could this happen here? Absolutely it could. Facebook is our most popular online destination after Google Search. Over two million New Zealanders check Facebook daily and its attractiveness for advertisers is growing rapidly.
Under MMP our small voting public effectively constitutes a single manipulable seat. The psychographic dispositions of swing voters could be identified , targeted and manipulated without difficulty. Certain offshore and resident billionaires could easily meet campaign research expenses and hide their contributions behind blind trusts. In place of Cambridge Analytica would be another similar organisation with a friendlier sounding name. Election campaigns centred around the issues of tax, national sovereignty and/or oil, gas and coal exploration would certainly draw the attention of the one-percenters .
In such circumstances if Facebook allowed user data to be harvested it could simply ignore New Zealand privacy law because the Privacy Commissioner has no prosecuting authority. Facebook`s recent refusal to allow a complainant access to personal information held on the accounts of several users illustrates this. The social media behemoth is a law unto itself and a fundamental threat to the democratic process everywhere.