South Africa

Op-Ed: Cambridge Analytica vs Facebook – a breach of trust

By Patrick Pillay 3 April 2018

As the world reels from the impact of the recent Cambridge Analytica data privacy breaches, we have each felt this crisis as a body blow right in our digital gut; a point in digital space and time which brings into focus the basis and nature of our engagement with the internet and with social media and new media in particular. By PATRICK PILLAY.

How indistinguishable have we become from our digital identities and how exposed have we left ourselves to the merchants of this modern market? This is a matter of global concern as well as of deep personal significance.

Facebook has been hacked. Cambridge Analytica has been hacked albeit by a whistle-blower and an undercover camera, the old-fashioned way. We’ve been hacked, the new-fashioned digital way.

Our long-held suspicions about this industry have been confirmed – that every post on Facebook, every “reaction”, every contact on our smartphones, every messenger note, every phone call made and received, and every Google search, was and still is being monitored, collated and monetised into valuable metadata, for sale to the best and most strategic bidder. Is this what users signed up for, as Mark Zuckerberg now claims?

Told you so” is not what we want to hear right now. But the writing has been on the wall for a long time – our Facebook walls, to pitch the point precisely. Fast-forward a decade and a fraction after its launch in February 2004 and we now have over two billion people who regularly volunteer and update personal information onto this platform (T & Cs apply) that they might not usually offer up to a colleague we work next to for most of our waking hours.

It might not seem like a big deal to many that some personal information is “out there”, or because “I have nothing to hide, anyway”. But, this is less about secrecy than it is about privacy rights, contracted with Facebook. The problem is that we upheld our end of the deal, Facebook didn’t. Mark Zuckerberg admitted that much over the Cambridge Analytica exposé.

The name Cambridge Analytica, by the way, was coined by Trump ex-band member, Steve Bannon. That should say something in itself; talk about interference with an American election.

We had been warned though, not just by anybody but by the very architects of Social Media themselves. For senior Facebook insiders such as Sean Parker (ex-president) and Chamath Palihapitiya (ex-developer) the idea of mass surveillance and data manipulation was inherent and systemic, i.e. designed into the very platform being created. George Orwell could not have thought up something this widespread and, if we have to say it, Orwellian. Dislike it as we must, warrantless surveillance and the gross breach of privacy rights is the (dis)order of our age, it seems.

If it is not already self-evident, something may need to be said about the very global nature of this particular crisis, notwithstanding the admittance that the said 50 million affected users were Americans. What has all this hullabaloo between an American and a British company to do with us on the southern tip of Africa anyway? Everything! Besides companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon being borderless global entities, does it really have to be spelt out that mass surveillance is also global? Even if we are not paranoid, that doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get us, so to say. We are caught in this dragnet whether we like it or not. Not unlike the intended borderless universality of a cryptocurrency, we are all now a part of a global BitNation, part protoplasm, part digital, and most important to Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, part merchandise.

Every society in development must go through the tests on matters “privacy”. In a post-September 11, 2001 world every country was impacted by the clash between the US Patriot Act (Passed October 26, 2001) and that country’s very constitution (4th Amendment) and how civil liberties/privacy rights were tested and diminished, in the name of the “War on Terror” and “Homeland Security”. That is to mention nothing of the Executive Order issued by George W. Bush shortly after 9/11, which set the stage for warrantless surveillance and searches; schemes so well figured out that they couldn’t tell a weapon of mass destruction from a Tupperware container in Iraq. There is something to be learnt from this clash and particularly the US 4th Amendment itself.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The South African Constitution is not too distant, in principle. But these important instruments are effectively pre-digital age. Much help will be needed from Constitutional Law and Media Law experts to reinterpret such provisions under the current digital landscape. Our Constitution, Article 14, reads,

Everyone has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have— (a) their person or home searched; (b) their property searched; (c) their possessions seized; or (d) the privacy of their communications infringed.”

Returning to Facebook and this nexus of surveillance, one of the more important moments in this Post-Cold War, Post 9/11 continuum of mass surveillance was the Edward Snowden-PRISM revelations in June 2013 which busted the US National Security Agency (NSA). It was learnt that deals were done between tech-companies like Verizon and the NSA, involving personal data of users. As recently as last week Edward Snowden made the point that what were once open surveillance platforms have now morphed into Social Media organisations. In exposing the systems of mass surveillance, Snowden’s was preceded by many brave and patriotic public servants, such as William (Bill) Binney and Thomas Drake, to mention just two. The difference with Edward Snowden was that he had the hard evidence, PRISM.

Facebook makes their money by exploiting and selling intimate details about the private lives of millions, far beyond the scant details you voluntarily post. They are not victims. They are accomplices.” – Edward Snowden

Perhaps the prize for best prediction on how the world of digital media and surveillance would unfold has to go to one of the original Crypto-Revolutionaries of our age, Eric Hughes, who penned the very prophetic, A Cypherpunk’s Manefesto (1993). In his Manefesto, Hughes warned:

We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organisations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence.”

Since Eric Hughes and the start of the Cypherpunk movement in 1988, which has since evolved and exploded into the current Crypto-Anarchy movement, the rallying cry has always been, “We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any.”

The irony of all of this may be that our direction back home to our digital privacy and dignity may be guided by groupings such as anonymous and The Cryptoanarchy Institute headquartered in Prague, the Czech Republic. This is not about Ross Ulrich’s drug infested The Silk Road, or peddling in snuff movies or assassins for hire (One doesn’t need the DarkNet for assassins in KZN, RSA, by the way). This not about Mr Robot and his goings-on with Elliot, either. This is not about advocating for an absolute right to privacy, there is no such unfettered right. The serious scourge of child pornography being just one instance justifying the need for intervention. The choreographed murders by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), posted online, being another.

This is about well-intended people such as Eric Hughes and the late Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), who seeded the idea of Net Neutrality in our popular psyche and it is about our need to be constantly vigilant and suspicious of those who wish to tinker with the internet and those who lay in wait amidst the fine print (T & C’s apply) to hijack our rights to privacy. Had this not happened in the Cambridge Analytica case Mark Zuckerberg would not have apologised and have admitted to “a breach of trust”.

The same could be said of the Web as was said once of Quantum Physics by Richard Feynman (As attributed by Richard Dawkins):

If you think you understand quantum theory … you don’t understand quantum theory.”

We must move beyond what was and is the dark side of the DarkNet and the shallow end of the DeepWeb to really understand the potential for the demise of our privacy, civil liberties and dignity, while at the same time grasping the real potential for a rediscovered and principled humanity in the digital age.

For whatever the motivations might have been for Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower whose deposition to the UK Parliamentary Special Hearing on March 27, 2018 spilt more beans, bits and bytes to call out Cambridge Analytica, we owe him a debt, as we do to people like Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden, who were prepared to challenge an existing (dis)order in pursuit of a greater good, and dare it be said, a more principled understanding of what is actually in the “national interest”. The same must be said of our very own Right2Know campaign and respected academics such as Dr Julie Reid (Unisa) who are prepared to enter into public discourse on our own grappling with legislation such as the RSA Film and Publication Amendment Bill (B37-2015) on the regulation of online content (since passed by the RSA National Assembly on March 6, 2018).

Whether Silicon Valley has succumbed to the surveillance pursuits of the NSA remains a vital question for everybody, everywhere. On our side of the internet highway, imagine a half-intelligent South African debate on privacy rights in the digital age conducted under the auspices of a Minister of State Security, say we call him David Mahlobo or Bongani Bongo, or a Minister of Communications, let’s call her Faith Muthambi, for instance. I can’t even imagine imagining that. Now we are asked to feel safe in the hands of one Minister Dipuo Bertha Letsatsi-Duba (Minister of State Security, 2018) and a certain Minister Nomvula Mokonyane (Minister of Communications, 2018).

No matter how the investigation into the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook saga unfolds, we must heed the cautionary highlighted by our “digital ancestors” and social media insiders who have now come out: “Use it, don’t let it use you”. DM

Photo: The Facebook icon is displayed in Taipei, Taiwan, 28 April 2017 (re-issued 16 May 2017). EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo

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