What the Cambridge Analytica Facebook breach means for students

Personal data can be political, regardless of the country

Facebook becoming unlocked.
Photo illustration by Josh Granovsky

It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you – and, if you’re on Facebook, they really might be. 

In case you’ve avoided this news until now, IT service management company Cambridge Analytica harvested 50 million Facebook users’ personal data and used it to assist the Trump and Brexit campaigns with targeted online political ads and posts.

This breach has major repercussions for anyone who lives online.

Speaking to the UK’s Observer, Christopher Whylie, a Canadian whistleblower who worked for Cambridge Analytica, said, “we exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

Basically, the allegations say that user profiles, accessed after they participated in an app thisisyourdigitallife, were harvested by Cambridge Analytica and targeted with posts that played to their personality and manipulated their political beliefs. However, It wasn’t just the users — the app received people’s online friends’ personal information too.

It seems it’s only a matter of time before someone uses the “tag yourself as different kinds of water meme” for evil. 

For the most part, it seems like the political ramifications have skipped Canada. Trudeau recently dodged a question about whether or not the Liberals would target voters based off their Facebook data in the next election. The House of Commons invited Whylie to speak about the implications of the breach. As of now, Whylie hasn’t made allegations of unethical activity in Canada.

While the breach hasn’t yet affected any Canadian elections, it sheds some serious light on what it means to live online. Data analytics can draw a profile of you based off the quizzes you do, the pages you like and the memes you comment on.

It can get scarily accurate. Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix calls it “behavioral microtargeting” , which he explained as a situation where targeted ads tug on your heartstrings and influence your voting habits. This kind of thing can go beyond the liberal-conservative spectrum and really speak to your profile.

Xenophobic? Watch This is Us? Like cute animals? There’s an ad for that.

So far, it looks like Canadians have missed the brunt of this particular breach. This doesn’t make it less important.

With potential populist challengers popping up in our electoral system, it pays to understand the political implications of your Facebook profile go beyond whether or not you like National Post or Toronto Star articles. 

With Facebook in full swing as a personal data provider, your online social life is now a potential part of the political process if it goes to a data analytics company helping a politician pump out ads.

If it sounds creepy, it’s because it is. If it seems like Mark Zuckerberg is an indoor-kid giving an all-too late apology, it’s because he is. This is an issue facing the platform as a whole.

The easiest lesson to draw from this is that Facebook should be treated like a public forum, something most students already do. The other option is to see social media companies for what they are: companies that collect and sell the detailed personal data of users’ private lives to advertisers.

Some of those advertisers can be less than savoury political actors — just as easily in Canada as in the U.S. or U.K. As the Canadians that spend the most time online, it’s time students are aware of that before another election.

Sometimes a meme isn’t just a meme. It’s data.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.