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Facebook vs Cambridge Analytica: when countercultures attack

The news of Facebook's auditors piling into the offices of Cambridge Analytica ahead of an attempt by the Information Commissioner's Office to obtain a search warrant to conduct its own investigation is perhaps the most telling sign of what has been happening over the past few decades in the world of IT. And it's a microcosm of similar trends across society that threaten to leave it in tatters.

More than 20 years ago, two academics from the University of Westminster’s Hypermedia Research Centre wrote an essay in one of the first magazines to take advantage of the birth of the public World Wide Web. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described the “Californian Ideology”. It was, and pretty much still is, “a mix of cybernetics, free-market economics and counterculture libertarianism.”

You can regard the well-meaning Stewart Brand as the prophet of the California Ideology. For its fans, the ideology promises a technological utopia driven by the freedom of information enabled by an electronic network that extends into every part of life. The product of this ideology is, at the technology end, the internet of things (IoT) that will supposedly make all our lives easier and if not easier at least they will be efficient. At the societal end? It’s not pretty. You have a firm scraping the profiles of millions of people in order to target them with malicious propaganda. And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

Barbrook and Cameron identified the problem squarely: the Californian Ideology is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, “Community activists will increasingly use hypermedia to replace corporate capitalism and big government with a hi-tech ‘gift economy’ in which information is freely exchanged between participants.”

On the other hand, “West Coast ideologues have embraced the laissez-faire ideology of their erstwhile conservative enemy… the convergence of media, computing and telecommunications will not create an electronic agora, but will instead lead to the apotheosis of the market, an electronic exchange within which everybody can become a free trader.”

By convincing you to share and to sign a EULA to do so, Facebook surged to the top of the pretty much totally free market for personal data. Yes, there are supposedly controls in areas such as the EU, but as a US company in a sector where ‘innovation’ trumps responsibility almost all of the time, the only controls were the odd outcry over Facebook’s tendency to share stuff you probably didn’t want shared that widely.

It is at this point, we can heed the warnings and take a long hard look at whether the freedom for companies to do what they want with information in order to ‘innovate’ is worth the pain that will be inflicted when it goes wrong. Wait, there’s still time for the technological fix.

It is only a day after Cambridge Analytica’s confessions of misdeeds hit Channel 4 News and revealed that things went a bit further than using sentiment analysis to target ads on Facebook using data sneaked out under the guise of an academic research project. Already, people in the tech community are arguing for the use of technological fixes. Naturally, being 2018, the blockchain is leading the charge.

Julia Apostle, former lead counsel for Twitter UK, writes in the Financial Times how the blockchain can create “decentralised identity” and give users control of their own data. As with the blockchain somehow overcoming the problems of the border in Ireland after Brexit, the technology appears to have taken on some form of sympathetic magic. Touch the blockchain and all your problems disappear.

Let’s turn back to Brand for a moment, who famously told Steve Wozniak, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

The blockchain can really only control transactions. The minute the data it protects is decrypted, it’s all up for grabs. A lot of people will only be too happy to help data’s bid for freedom if it helps them make some more money. Unless you have some incredibly well-audited end-to-end system for managing the data at every stage, the control of the blockchain is an illusion.

The blockchain argument also ignores a problem that has received a lot less attention: the ready ability to de-anonymise supposedly anonymous data that is available from a highly instrumented world. Given that pretty much the only pictures of me on Facebook, both tagged and untagged, are in a pub on others’ timelines, the AI algorithms divining my lifestyle are probably not entirely favourable.

An extreme safeguard is to disallow the processing of any personal data without permission and lock it all away. You can kiss goodbye to smart cities and other things that might lead to some good in that case.

A more realistic proposal, I believe, is to look not so much at the data itself but what is done with it. Venture capitalists decry the EU’s work on the GDPR and the AI rules that are likely to follow it. Yet the fuzzy safeguards that a state-backed legal system can deploy remain our most effective tools for preventing the kinds of abuses of data that have come to light in the past few years.

Building better laws means attacking the Californian Ideology head-on. Dismantling that and freeing it of its contradictions is a necessary act in a society that depends on technology so heavily. It has become clear that its proponents, like most libertarians, never anticipate the endpoint of their ideology. They believe, in their anarcho-capitalist unstate, that magic will protect their property while they are free to do what they like, such as turn up unannounced at someone else’s office to perform an audit. And that no warlords with guns will turn up to free them of their property. At that point, people tend to like a bit of state intervention.

Last year, E&T looked at how political parties and their supporters are aggressively using social media to try and win elections, asking if this is truly democratic and, if not, can it be stopped?

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