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“Who has seen an ad that has convinced you that your microphone is listening to your conversations?” Parsons School of Design Prof. David Carroll asked his students this question at the beginning of “The Great Hack,” Netflix’s new documentary about Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based political consulting firm which harvested private data from up to 87 million Facebook profiles. The aim was to manipulate behavior during the 2016 election. As expected, almost every student in Carroll’s class raised their hand in creating a fitting introduction to discuss data privacy, value, and manipulation.

Two years ago, consumers worldwide learned that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook quiz data to construct millions of psychographic profiles that were, ultimately, provided to the Trump campaign to hyper-target voters with custom-made ad campaigns. These campaigns targeted the “persuadables,” or, people whose profiles suggested they were open to suggestion. These persons were inundated with content that was tailor-made to target their fears, insecurities, and prejudices, as well as to make them into passionate advocates for Trump.

Propaganda for political purposes

The film showed Cambridge Analytica working directly with Trump’s Project Alamo campaign, spending a million dollars a day on Facebook ads. They were a “full-service propaganda machine” as whistleblower Christopher Wylie put it later in the film. 

People did not realize their private data had been sold, allowing companies to personally solicit them without their knowing. Shoshana Zuboff, a professor with Harvard Business School, would coin the term “surveillance capitalism” to describe the act of extracting personal data—often going unrecognized to the individual—to create “new markets for behavioral prediction, modification, and control.” 

The news reportedly has reshaped how the public and government leaders view Silicon Valley tech giants, creating space for new ideology to protect consumer data, and regulate it across major platforms. As Prof. Carroll puts it, Facebook gives “any buyer direct access to my emotional pulse.” This means that those persons with access to personal confidential information may know precisely what it may take to illicit a reaction from you. Among those most culpable, Facebook declared it was taking steps to protect data. However, that came at a hefty price as regulators demanded accountability from all tech platforms that are mediating consumer’s lives.

Hackers infiltrate Uber

In 2016, Uber attempted to cover up a data breach that affected 57 million customers and drivers by allegedly paying the hackers $100,000 to delete the information. For this breach of trust, the federal government ordered Uber to pay a penalty of $148 million. Similarly, in 2015, California authorities fined Comcast $33 million after they inadvertently published the personal information of almost 75,000 customers. Also that year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hit AT&T with a $25 million fine—representing the largest fine ever issued at the time—for a data breach that exposed the confidential details of 280,000 customers. Subsequently, call center agents in a few countries sold the data to third parties. 

While those fines may seem steep, these are not the most expensive mistakes ever made. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Facebook an unprecedented $5 billion for its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That penalty was the largest that has ever been imposed on a company for a major data breach. Ironically, when this was announced, Facebook’s stock price didn’t even falter. Surprisingly, it actually went up.  

According to the Garter report, by next year 10 percent of organizations are expected to incorporate a profitable business unit specifically for monetizing information. The film supports this by saying, “the world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.” Critics may disagree. Consumers cannot ignore the market value of their favorite companies compared to Facebook. According to NASDAQ, as of Sept. 3, Facebook has a market value of $520 billion. Comparatively, Delta Airlines, a company with numerous lucrative assets (like aircrafts, airport facilities and airspace routes) is worth $37 billion.

Your personal information can be hacked

According to the non-profit World Economic Forum, “consumers don’t know how valuable their personal data points actually are. This is partly because what comes in high volumes tends to be deemed low in value. With the exception of things like your name or birth date, data points hold little value by themselves. It is only once they are combined with other data—of the same or other people—that they accrue value.”

With the increasing economic value of personal data, consumers are at odds on their personal ideology. To some, data rights are human rights. Privacy is a human right. Personal data may fall into the latter category. Advocates call for privacy protection regardless of the economic consequences. This is a major challenge as the Internet remains in the realm of the “Wild West” where technological advances remain far ahead of the ability of most consumers to master them. There is no singular authority figure, despite the FTC & FCC’s regulatory attempts. 

Alternatively, advocates on the other side of the isssue believe individuals should assign property rights to their information. From there, they can work with third parties on a case-by-case basis as to how they might use it. Unfortunately, data is not a simple asset like a car or house. Personal data is often mixed with other information that may belong to major corporations. The lack of clear boundaries , between personal data and non-personal data within corporate databases, could be very challenging to implement, regulate, and to enforce.

Will.i.am steps forth

Musician will.i.am, who is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global AI Committee, has asked for a “blended strategy” that treats personal data as both a human right and property. He is quoted as saying that “personal data needs to be regarded as a human right, just as access to water is a human right. The ability for people to own and control their data should be considered a central, human value. The data itself should be treated like property and people should be fairly compensated for it.”

He adds, “the data monarchs know more about me than my mother, my government, or my doctor. I want to have it clearly explained in plain language who has access to my camera, to my photos, who’s listening to my microphone, and who gets to use this information.” 

According to a Nielsen report, at 90 percent, African-Americans have the second-highest smartphone ownership and usage of any other group second only to Asian-Americans. This makes Black people a major target for digital ads, especially during the upcoming election. Brad Parscale, President Trump’s digital media director for both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, admitted to the media they used dark ads to target Black voters in 2016. Their goal with these ads was to diminish Black voter turnout for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Dark ads are tailor-made content seen by specific groups, but generally unviewable to others. In many cases, permission was not granted by the consumer to receive these dark ads. Nonetheless, these ads pop up intimately on the smartphones of Black users to manipulate their behavior during elections, times of crisis, or even during a simple housing search.

‘Dark ads’ target Black consumers

Alternatively, dark ads are used to target Black consumers by exclusion when they least expect it. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union and three women filed a lawsuit against Facebook stating that 10 businesses using Facebook’s ad system only showed their job postings to men, thereby violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees and job applicants from discrimination based on sex, race, religion and national origin. 

Felipe Korzenny, author of “Hispanic Marketing: A Cultural Perspective,” says “if you say, ‘I would like to reach everyone except for people in same-sex relationships,’ that would be exclusionary to sexual [orientation]. It’s okay to target by exclusion if the exclusion is based on a behavior rather than a trait.” He cites Amazon as the best example of how a company should target consumers by purchasing behavior rather than their race. 

While the United States has tightened regulations in order for a breach to cost a company more than a few angry tweets, Europe has implemented its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to help re-balance data rights to be more transparent and fairer to people with fines of $22.5 million or more.