Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced and now closed political-consulting firm that got caught staging a heist of tens of millions of Facebook users’ data, now looks to be suffering a final indignity: being seen as not that special of a villain after all.
Two days after the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office released a lengthy report that found Cambridge Analytica’s work did not influence the Brexit referendum, one of that British firm’s foremost American critics argued that Cambridge’s death was meaningless because the underlying privacy problem remains very much alive.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York, made this case by walking an online audience through his own Cambridge Analytica file—for which he pursued a legal case in the U.K. with only partial success before investigators for Britain’s Channel 4 News found his details in a massive stash of leaked Cambridge data.
As viewers of Carroll’s talk Wednesday at the TEDxMidAtlantic online conference saw, most of this was other people’s work—bits harvested by third-party data brokers and then bought by Cambridge to feed into personality scores for such metrics as neuroticism and conscientiousness.
Carroll, semi-famous for his role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, emphasized three key points about the work Cambridge did for such Republican customers as President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
First, his file wasn’t that comprehensive because of the obvious unlikelihood of a Brooklyn academic voting for Trump—“I was not a targeted voter”—and his own efforts to be “a very privacy-defensive consumer.” Nor was the material collected by such data brokers as Data Trust and Infogroup (now Data Axle) all that accurate.
Citing a “NULL” value listed for social-media use, Carroll said “I’m a very frequent Twitter user, and they didn’t pick up on that!” He also called out errors in facts as basic as his household size and his history of making political donations.
Second, even limited and inaccurate data could still yield considerable value for a political campaign.
“It’s sort of like fishing,” Carroll said in his talk. “These don’t have to be that accurate, they just have to help find targets.” Channel 4 reported, for example, that Cambridge had filed many Black voters under a “Deterrence” label for people to be targeted with messages discouraging them from voting.
Moderator Dave Troy asked Carroll about similar efforts on the Democratic side, such as the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking 2008 work with the microtargeting firm Catalist.
“It’s fair to say that the Republicans and Democrats in general use comparable analytics files,” Carroll said. He criticized the lack of transparency and added that the bigger problem is the application of this information for such tricks as voter suppression: “The data itself is not necessarily nefarious, it’s the use that matters.”
Third, we have few ways of seeing the fruits of this intelligence gathering. Carroll would not have seen his complete file had an insider not passed a cache of data to Channel 4. He wouldn’t even have been able to make a legal case for his profile had Cambridge Analytica not shipped it to the U.K., leaving it subject to local data-protection laws.
“No campaign is making the mistake of exporting data to the U.K. again, so in 2020 we will have no rights,” he said. One exception: California residents who can avail themselves of disclosure and deletion rights in the California Consumer Privacy Act.
In the TEDx session, which also featured New Zealand social-media researcher Brent Allpress, Carroll did not discuss Cambridge Analytica’s vaunted use of psychographic data to model voter behavior—fueled by a “This Is Your Digital Life” personality quiz posted to Facebook under false pretenses
In email conversation Thursday, however, Carroll returned to that topic, saying this effort’s real-world utility—which he acknowledged to Channel 4 was “very controversial,” and which the ICO report largely discounted—mattered less than the shoddy manner in which the source data was collected. And the risk of that data lingering in one database or another.
“I think the potential effects are less important than the conditions by which they were obtained and the crises of being able to ensure that they have truly been deleted, expunged, sanitized from the data assets, possibly still being used,” he wrote. “If we could reliably ensure that these scores and models have been purged then we could stop worrying about and stop debating over whether they work.”
His preferred fix for that would involve nationwide adoption of those CCPA principles to give people a right to see the data campaigns have collected about them—somewhat along the lines of credit-report disclosure requirements.
“We have no right of access in the US, except increasingly California, so it starts with an enforceable requirement to fully disclose,” Carroll wrote. “Ideally, disclosures are pro-active, as proposed in Diane Feinstein’s Voter Privacy Act bill.”
That bill from Sen. Feinstein (D.-CA), introduced in July of 2019, would also require that campaigns delete their profiles of voters upon request. It has seen zero action since its introduction in the Senate, but its prospects could always change with a new Congress in January.
Or as Carroll told his audience Wednesday: “I think the best thing to do is to do democracy to make the situation better.”