Frequent internet users have become accustomed to targeted advertising. You probably see them regularly — ads that seem aimed especially at you, based on your age or interests. You might find them helpful, or perhaps invasive.
Such advertising is possible because of the “data mining” of information gleaned from your internet search patterns. The intent is to market to consumers the products that are likely to be of the most interest to them in an effort to generate more sales.
But data mining can have purposes other than those of a commercial nature, and that’s what has the operators of social media site Facebook in hot water right now.
Facebook and political data-mining company Cambridge Analytica are under the microscope over allegations the firm swiped data from 50 million Facebook users and used it to manipulate elections in the U.S. and Britain. There have been demands from those in the United Kingdom and North America to investigate the claims. Facebook says it is presently conducting its own review of the situation, and at Cambridge Analytica, the firm’s board of directors has suspended CEO Alexander Nix pending an investigation.
Nix’s suspension followed the broadcast of clips by Britain’s Channel 4 News, obtained by an undercover reporter, of the Cambridge CEO saying his firm played a major role in helping Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election.
Officials are calling for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to testify in an investigation, pointing the finger at Facebook for failing to protect the personal information of the site’s users. In an Associated Press story Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Facebook’s latest privacy scandal is a “danger signal,” and is demanding that Facebook take security measures to protect people’s privacy.
Also on Wednesday, Zuckerberg broke his silence on the issue, acknowledging mistakes were made and outlining steps to better protect Facebook users’ personal information.
The issue has ruffled feathers in Canada, too, because a whistleblower in the controversy is a Canadian data scientist, Christopher Wylie, who once worked for Cambridge Analytica and who previously did some work for the federal Liberals. The Liberals say that while Wylie was contracted by the Liberals in early 2016 to do preliminary work for the caucus research bureau — a contract done in accordance with House of Commons procurement rules — the party opted not to go forward with the project after seeing a sample of his services.
This data mining issue is of concern because of the very real possibility that voters’ decisions could be swayed by feeding them targeted information which might not necessarily be true. It’s the ultimate propaganda machine.
In this digital age, savvy cybernauts are aware of the potential dangers of letting personal information fall into the hands of criminals looking to separate us from our money. A more subtle hazard lies in being lured astray by outside agencies seeking to influence our political views, and thus our voting behaviours.
This latest scandal will, we hope, lead to more stringent efforts to protect users of social media sites such as Facebook from those who would seek to use personal data for nefarious purposes.
It should also cause us to be more mindful and cautious about information and opinions we encounter online.