Who do we get angry at when people use the data we freely release to the world? Victoria University’s Kathleen Kuehn looks at how democratic processes are being manipulated through our online pursuits

From roughly 2013 to 2015, New Zealand was embroiled in debates about the country’s “mass surveillance” practices, after top-secret documents revealed that our foreign intelligence bureau, the GCSB, actively spied on citizens and friendly nations as part of its obligations under the Five Eyes international spy alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Among other things, the debate centred on the collection and mining of data produced through our everyday digital communications: internet data, but also text messages, phone calls and social media applications accessed via mobile phones. 

Last month, a new scandal broke over the ways in which the aggregation and mining of 50 million Facebook users’ personal data had been used by a matrix of researchers, governments and private companies to influence citizen behaviour that may have shaped the outcomes of the last US presidential election and UK Brexit votes. The Cambridge Analytica revelations gave proof to what many critics, including myself, have forewarned and feared: that democratic processes are being manipulated through the surveillance of our routine — and often leisurely — online pursuits. What this case also illustrates is how these practices now exceed the state, as market forces — including higher education — exploit ‘Big Data’ for the purposes of profit, influence and control. 

Despite affecting over 50 million people around the globe (including some 64,000 New Zealanders), the Cambridge Analytica scandal has not yet been framed as a surveillance issue. By definition, mass surveillance involves the indiscriminate collection of data for security and governance, but also management, influence and social control. We’re just often reluctant to think about surveillance in terms outside the state, but that’s an outdated way of thinking. As I argued in my 2016 book Privacy and Mass Surveillance in the Post-Snowden Era, state surveillance may no longer be our biggest concern. The recent Cambridge Analytica issue illustrates (as the files leaked by the US National Security Agency’s Edward Snowden also did) that surveillance now far exceeds the state and involves a matrix of institutional powers that cut across public and private spheres.

The current political economy is one in which private corporations, state actors and even university researchers form mutually beneficial partnerships around the collection and exploitation of Big Data. Yet internet users (including you) are part of this too, given these datasets are built from our everyday digitally enabled communications. As we now know, even the most banal interactions can yield rich forms of information that can be mobilised to influence significant political events. In this case, University of Cambridge researcher Aleksandr Kogan created a seemingly innocuous “personality quiz” in 2013 (ironically called “This is Your Digital Life”) using Facebook’s ‘Open Graph’ API, a third-party app that enabled developers to access the personal data of consenting users as well as the data of their Facebook friends. This is how 270,000+ quiz-takers gave away millions of user names, gender, location, time zone, Facebook ID, bios, birthdays, education, political views, relationship status, religion, notes, chat status and “likes”.

Although originally collected for “research purposes”, the dataset was sold on by Kogan to  Cambridge Analytica, a private data analytics firm whose tagline proudly reads: “Data drives all that we do. Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.” In turn, Cambridge Analytica did what most companies do: it sold its services to customers. Only in this case its clients were politicians angling to cut through a cluttered mediascape to reach swing voters by whatever means necessary.

When surveillance involves so many different players, including the sites of our own enjoyment, to where do we direct our rage? Who do we hold accountable?

We live in a political economy where Big Data is king, where the business models of social media are based on the collection and resale of our data. Most of Silicon Valley’s wealth is derived from such arrangements. But data analytics do more than pay Facebook’s bills; they’re also what enable social media to provide the customised experiences we enjoy (eg, curated newsfeeds, suggested content, birthday reminders, memories, etc). We willingly trade our privacy and the privacy of others for a personalised, targeted user experience. As a result, we too become complicit in this surveillance culture.

It’s also easy to be angry at university researchers like Kogan. But even Kogan is a product of the times. University researchers working against systematic budget cuts and growing managerialism are increasingly expected to economise their research in innovative ways. For example, university-mandated “strategic initiatives” encourage researchers to establish close relationships with public and private ‘stakeholders’; to secure corporate and government funding; and to monetise research through IP commercialisation or private sale (eg, selling survey findings to a private data analytics firm). Full-time, permanent academic jobs are consistently in decline as the contingent labour force grows, while prestigious research centres increasingly require PhDs to fund their own jobs via external grants and contracts. These conditions aren’t an excuse for violating individual privacy, but they do speak to the tremendous pressures the structural realities of the political economy now present for academics as well. The normalisation of this political economy is evident in Kogan’s interview with the BBC, where he stated: “Honestly we thought we were acting perfectly appropriately. We thought we were doing something that was really normal.”

As a central organising principle of contemporary life, surveillance is, fundamentally, about power. Reframing the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal as mass surveillance demands we recognise these practices as structural, not individual, issues. What occurred isn’t merely an example of ‘bad apples’, dodgy ethics, nefarious politicians or narcissistic social media users who wanted to learn more about themselves at the expense of the privacy of millions. It’s about a political and economic system that has long valued power, profit and control above individual and collective rights, privacy and autonomy.

Dr Kathleen Kuehn will be talking on these and other themes when she joins Dr Markus Luczak-Roesch (see previous Newsroom article) for ‘Re-building the Web We Want’, the latest in Victoria University of Wellington’s free public Spotlight Lectures series, Tuesday 17 April, 12.30pm–1.15pm, Lecture Theatre One, Government Buildings, 55 Lambton Quay. More details and registration here.

Dr Kathleen Kuehn (Twitter: @kathleenkr) is a Senior Lecturer in the Media Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, specialising in digital privacy issues.

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