Recent Read: “One Man’s Obsessive Fight to Reclaim His Cambridge Analytics Data”

Don’t miss Issie Lapowsky’s interesting profile of David Carroll on WIRED, the professor who has spent years trying to get his personal data from Cambridge Analytica. Some excerpts:

 

For more than two years, Carroll, a professor of media design at The New School in Manhattan, has been on an obsessive, epically nerdy, and ultimately valuable quest to retrieve his data from Cambridge Analytica. During the 2016 election, when the firm worked for both the Trump campaign and senator Ted Cruz’s campaign, its leaders bragged openly about having collected thousands of data points to build detailed personality profiles on every adult in the United States. They said they used these profiles to target people with more persuasive ads, and when President Trump won the White House, they hungrily accepted credit.

A year ago, Carroll filed a legal claim against the London-based conglomerate, demanding to see what was in his profile. Because, with few exceptions, British data protection laws allow people to request data on them that’s been processed in the UK, Carroll believed that even as an American, he had a right to that information. He just had to prove it.

 

***

Carroll knew none of this at the time. But his experience building Glossy made him enough of a self-proclaimed “privacy nerd” that by the time the 2016 election rolled around he was keeping a close eye on the presidential campaigns and their digital strategies. He was watching SCL’s spinoff Cambridge Analytica, in particular, because it had taken credit for helping senator Ted Cruz win the Iowa primary, using so-called psychographic targeting techniques. But it wasn’t until President Trump’s upset victory, in a campaign that had been buoyed by Cambridge Analytica data scientists and consultants, that Carroll, a Democrat, began to worry about what this firm could really do with millions of Americans’ information.

He wasn’t the only one. Thousands of miles away, in Geneva, Switzerland, a researcher named Paul-Olivier Dehaye, who now runs a digital rights nonprofit called PersonalData.IO, was deep into a months-long investigation of SCL. At the time, he was trying to answer a fundamental question about the company that was also rumored to have played a hand in promoting the Brexit referendum: Did Cambridge Analytica really know as much as it claimed? Or was it just selling snake oil? One way to answer that question conclusively, Dehaye believed, would be to see what information the company actually held.

***

Cambridge Analytica may have taken data from Facebook that it didn’t have the right to, and Facebook may have made that data too easy to access. But the most overlooked fact in the whole saga is that Cambridge Analytica wasn’t alone. From data brokers that track your every purchase to mobile phone carriers that sell your location to social media companies that give far more detail to developers than is necessary, there’s an invisible, unregulated marketplace of personal information in the United States. And it’s no longer just being used to sell us new boots or connect us with high school classmates. It’s being used to influence decisions about who the most powerful people in the world get to be.

“They’re not the only ones by any stretch of the imagination,” Carroll says of SCL. “It’s a dirty business, but sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

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Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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