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Data privacy: 'We're pretty much in the worst-case scenario'

Jordan Wildon
July 17, 2020

Germany's top court has ruled police have too much access to citizens' data. This kind of "abuse of technology" is commercially available, raising major ethical questions, says data privacy activist Brittany Kaiser.

Cracked smartphone screen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

Two years ago, it was revealed that one company had used access to 87 million people's personal data to influence votes around the world. Ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections, the woman who revealed how Facebook misused our data issued a stark warning on the digital state of affairs: "We're pretty much in the worst-case scenario. In my opinion, I don't really think that the abuse of technology could get much worse than it is now."

That warning comes not from 2018, when the problem was revealed, but today, ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections and four years on from the votes that saw Trump enter America's highest office and the United Kingdom decide to leave the European Union — with both being deemed illegitimate by critics due to the campaigns' use of hyper-targeted misinformation, breaching of campaign financing laws and shady data practices.

Brittany Kaiser, a former political consultant, is often credited as the woman who helped transform politics as we know it. Her role with Cambridge Analytica saw her selling the merits of data-driven campaigning to political teams and governments around the world.

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower speaks

In March 2018, she came forward with information about the company's wrongdoings. "When I first met the CEO of Cambridge Analytica and the SCL group, Alexander Nix, and he told me about what they could do with data, which sounded so much more advanced than anything that I ever learned working on the Obama campaign or with the DNC (US Democratic National Committee) or other related organizations," Kaiser told DW, speaking from the Collision from Home tech conference.

Despite having a background working with data for then-Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign, the United Nations and other NGOs and being trained as a human rights lawyer, she ended up taking a job at Cambridge Analytica, where she worked for three years.

Made in Germany - The internet and data privacy - gimme your data!

Increasing public pressure about data usage

It was not just the work of Cambridge Analytica that made this possible, but the way in which social media companies — particularly Facebook — collected data. Following the company's collapse in 2018, social media firms were forced to address increasing pressure from people about how their data was used. Two years on, social media firms are still struggling with their role in the collection user data — and also being an intermediary in the spread of mis- and disinformation and political targeting online.

"I have to be fair to [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey that some of the bigger moves he's made have been incredibly helpful to show executives of other firms that they can take a stand on certain things. For instance, banning political advertising at the end of last year and now flagging content that's considered either against community standards or incitement of violence."

Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix (center)
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix (center) amid an investigation into the company's practices and harvesting of Facebook user dataImage: Reuters/H. Nicholls

Kaiser contrasts Dorsey's stance with that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has come under increasing public scrutiny for the company's data practices.

"He is taking a stand as opposed to Mark Zuckerberg, who I often see just making excuses for why he's not willing to tackle some of the biggest issues on his platform. For instance, obviously allowing politicians to say whatever they like on his platform without being held to community standards, even though we do have laws against incitement of violence or incitement of racial hatred, or voter suppression, or slander, or libel."

Read more: Why you should think twice about giving Facebook your mobile number

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before the House of Representatives in 2018 about the data privacy and the use of Facebook data to target US voters in the 2016 electionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/File/A. Harnik

'I suggest you read TikTok's terms'

Kaiser underlines the need for legislative frameworks to address the current lack of oversight and legal gray area. "We need to work very closely with legislators to make sure that the laws are technical enough that companies like Facebook can be held accountable for their actions."

However, a legislative framework would be insufficient if it considers only the country in which the company is based. Numerous recent cases have raised the specter of foreign interference via tech firms, making the issue one of global concern.

Read more: From Russia with love? UK sits on hot-button meddling report

In Data We Trust — Founders' Valley (2/5)

"There's a lot of Silicon Valley platforms that provide space for foreign interference,” Kaiser says, rebutting the notion that foreign interference and Silicon Valley's influence are separate issues. "I suggest that you read TikTok's terms and conditions if you haven't yet."

It's difficult to know the intentions of data collection if it's not clearly stated. In the case of TikTok — a Chinese video-sharing platform — Kaiser says "their intentions for our data could be quite concerning. [The app] has detailed facial recognition and can map all of the rooms in the homes of its users. It has constant access to other apps and data; contacts, live location, access to your microphone and camera whenever they'd like."

She adds, "regardless of how amazing some of the TikTok activists have been recently for political movements that I'm interested in, I still think it's quite a dangerous tool."

Read more: India bans TikTok, other Chinese apps over 'security' concerns

'Data could be the great equalizer'

Though Kaiser has co-founded initiatives that fight for changes in legislation, informed consent and individual control over personal data, she doesn't believe that we should all throw our digital technology into the nearest body of water.

"I do obviously believe that whether it's a government or political party or a private organization, every organization should be data-driven."

The value of data

Another of the solutions Kaiser envisions is empowering users through giving them the opportunity to make money from their data. It is a possibility gaining traction: in 2017, the Economist magazine claimed "The world's most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data."

"I actually see that data could be the great equalizer," she said. "What I found in past experience is that actually for some people that have lower purchasing power, their data is worth more because they don't usually produce as much data...Mark Zuckerberg says our data is only worth seventeen dollars a quarter … for two billion people in the world that are living on less than two dollars a day, seventeen dollars a quarter could completely change their lives."

However, many data privacy experts point out that protecting individual data is insufficient when the failure to do so has effects on a societal level. Critics say that asking individuals to self-regulate through consent or data dividend schemes doesn't require companies to respect privacy rights, but puts the onus on the end user.

Read more: Click here to unlock the value of your data

Quote card of Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser

Germany's unique experience with data regulation

Verily, political parties that leaned more liberal shunned data-driven techniques, generally believing in stronger data privacy regulation and that elections in their favor were a done-deal.

This was partially the case with Germany's ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), In late 2016, Cambridge Analytica pitched a proposal to the CDU to work on Chancellor Angela Merkel's re-election campaign.

"The CDU told us no and said that using data was not in the 'political personality of Germany' and we could take our data-driven strategies and go back to England."

Europeans, Kaiser argues, are a lot more data-conscious as a result of World War II. This is particularly apparent in how Germans treat their own data privacy. It is incredibly common to find that people are not using their real names on Facebook, profile pictures are obscure, and credit cards are rare.

Paradoxically, however, German residents still have to submit large amounts of paperwork to the government, including a "police registration" when they move houses, and the country is notorious for requiring people to submit considerable personal data both either digitally or on paper for routine administrative tasks. However, the country's top court on Friday ruled that police and intelligence officials have excessive access to personal data on mobile phone and internet users.

Read more: German court rules police have too much access to personal data

Germany's history, Kaiser says, is a "stark warning and reminder of how bad it can get. Therefore, we need to prevent it from ever going that far again."

Data privacy, awareness vary from country to country

Likewise, after pitching political targeting based on data to a French political party, the consultancy firm was sent packing: "If people knew a candidate was doing this, it would mean defeat for certain," a party official said.

"[The data market] was a uniquely American opportunity," she wrote in her book, Targeted. "Data laws in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France don't allow such freedoms."

"Americans hadn't the baggage that Europeans had," she further noted. The "data on citizens from Jews to the Romany, on the disabled and homosexuals, was what had made the Holocaust both possible and cruelly efficient. In the aftermath of World War II and coming into the digital age, legislators in Europe made sure that data laws were strict in order to prevent something like that from ever happening again."

Anti-Brexit protesters outside UK Houses of Parliament
Kaiser says Cambridge Analytica initially pitched a plan to work for the "Remain" campaign, but were rebuffed — and the firm ended up using targeted data to support the ultimately successful "Leave" campaignImage: AFP/Getty Images/D. Leal-Olivas

Even though Germany and France turned Cambridge Analytica away, this was not the case in the United Kingdom, where the firm helped the Vote Leave campaign to target specific information to segments of British society and also circumvent campaign financing laws.

Read more: What role did Cambridge Analytica play in the Brexit vote?

Initially, though, Cambridge Analytica had pitched to the "Remain" campaign. But "we were told that professional political consultants were not needed because [Remain] were going to win anyway, which I think was generally a kind of a misstep on the entire campaign."

Indeed, the Brexit campaign was just one high-profile job for the firm. In early 2020, Kaiser shared additional documents outlining work Cambridge Analytica did in Brazil, Kenya, Ghana and Malaysia. Over 100,000 further documents are due to be released, detailing work in 68 countries.