There’s this irrational fear on the internet that the FBI (or whatever form of it you have in your country), through your tiny laptop camera, is watching your every click, your every choice, your every move. Hence, it explains the ads or random videos that occasionally pop up on your social media that seem suspiciously tailor made for you. It’s a farfetched idea that’s given birth to a thousand memes online. But what if, to some degree, this is all true? While there’s most likely no one observing you across your laptop or phone cameras, there might just be data companies with bots and algorithms that work to collect all the personal data you put out in the internet in order to, someday, be used against you.
The idea is exactly what Netflix’s newest documentary The Great Hack exposes. It starts out with a media professor named David Carroll following the international lawsuit he’d filed against Cambridge Analytica. It’s the now defunct firm that had touted itself as a “behavior change company” and was subsequently revealed to have had a hand at the results of the 2016 US Elections, as well the Brexit decision.
So, what did they do? Well, they "spied" on Americans, of course, in the digital sense of the term. Cambridge Analytica gathered up users' Facebook data in order to reportedly build comprehensive profiles on each individual. These data profiles were used to target users with ads and other collaterals that would sway their viewpoints towards the favor of their clients—in this case, the Trump presidential campaign. Analytica’s tactics worked so well that come election time, the company had claimed to have over 5000 data points on every American voter.
Surprisingly enough, the technique CA used to steal unknowing people’s personal information is simple. Remember those ostensibly fun and quick Facebook quizzes that would randomly show up on your timeline? The same ones that would ask seemingly basic yet personal questions in order to get to an interesting result that you could share with your friends? Apparently, all of that information you so nonchalantly give out goes straight to the hands of companies like Cambridge Analytica.
Therein lies David Carroll’s plight—one man in international waters attempting to retrieve the data stolen from him by this company, in the hopes of revealing to everyone else just how much info can be harnessed from you by the simple click of a button or a curt answer on a seemingly harmless questionnaire.
That being said, below are a few important things we learned from Netflix's The Great Hack:
1. Be vigilant in the things you read or see online.
According to the documentary, while Cambridge Analytica gathered data from random users, they only targeted specific people who they knew could easily be influenced, based on their profiles. They called these users the Persuadables. These persuadables would then be constantly bombarded with designed content, like ads, blogs, and videos, until they perceived the world in the way Cambridge Analytica and their clients wanted them to perceive.
To illustrate, an undercover video in The Great Hack showed them Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix bragging to a potential client about how they had helped the Trump campaign win by creating videos that had called to “Defeat Crooked Hillary” on Facebook. These videos, made with the malicious intent to spread propaganda against Trump’s competitor, was then cascaded down repeatedly onto the Facebook timelines of the people they knew were susceptible to a change in viewpoint.
Our main takeaway from this disturbing act? Don’t believe everything you see or hear on the internet. There may be no way of knowing if you’re a potential “persuadable” or not, but at this point, that’s not something worth dwelling on. In the height of technology’s power and influence on today’s world—and until proper laws are passed to protect our data privacy—it’s no longer a question of whether we’re being manipulated, but a matter of staying cautious and keeping our autonomy in check. Simply put, it’s important to learn how to filter out the sound bites fed to us online, in order to keep our fundamental principles and beliefs from being swayed without carefully thinking and discerning for ourselves.
2. Always read the terms and conditions.
Another takeaway to keep in mind is to always always take the time to read a site or app’s terms and conditions. Yes, no matter how long, tedious, or text-heavy they may look. After all, it’s important to know what exactly you’re getting yourself into and how much of your personal info you’re allowing these apps to essentially access and own.
Case in point: Tiffany Candelaria’s billboard on a subway in New York City. To summarize, what once was a simple tweet by the 24-year-old was taken by the app itself and blown up into a giant ad for all of NYC’s commuters to see, where the said tweet even included Tiffany’s bikini photos while on the beach. While friends and fellow Twitter users aired out their concern on whether they got her explicit consent or not (which, they didn’t), it’s all technically legal under the app’s terms and conditions.
According to Twitter’s terms of service:
"By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed). This license authorizes us to make your Content available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same."
In brief, Twitter practically owns everything you post on their site, where they, and everyone else that can see them, may use them accordingly without needing your permission. Who’s to say this free-for-all information won’t be used against you in the future, similar to what Cambridge Analytica had done with that of Facebook users?
3. Regulate the personal data you put up online.
While it’s easy to say that the best way to keep our privacy from being breached is to just not go online at all, today’s digitally-dependent age makes that almost impossible to do so. Instead, be smart about the information you put out into the world. Not everyone has to know every single little detail about you, least of all what restaurant you frequent, or where you’re located at any given moment. While you’re at it, maybe lessen the urge to answer all the frivolous Facebooks quizzes that come your way. There’s more to life than finding out which Avengers character you’re most like, or what you’d look like in 50 years.
4. Data rights are human rights.
The abovementioned remain precautionary measures, of course, until proper and stronger data rights are set and these rights are treated as a fundamental and global human right. This especially holds when more people have called for Cambridge Analytica’s methodology of psychographics (info collecting for the purpose of profiling) to be treated as “weapons grade technology." A term often linked to psychological operations used in the military. While the hefty claim remains up for debate, the fact remains that the unrestricted collection of our online data can be used in ways that may infringe on our own well-being and autonomy.