Is the age of online privacy over?

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Credit: Aurora Stewart

Holly Jennings
Views Editor

Over a year has passed since the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and we are still very much in the dark about what happened. Will online privacy ever truly exist again?

Last year saw the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it was exposed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested millions of pounds worth of data via users Facebook profiles without their consent, and went on to use this data for political advertising purposes. Now, had you asked me last year what happened during the scandal, I probably would have regurgitated an answer not dissimilar to that. However, when we look deeper into it, we really never found out much about the situation, or at least that was true until The Great Hack was released this summer on Netflix, the first feature-length film which goes in depth about the scandal. Despite the huge media storm that surrounded the scandal, producing 35,000 news stories per day, we still know very little about what happened, including Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with the Leave EU campaign. But, what’s changed since then? Will there ever be such a thing as online privacy ever again? And, what I found out, was the answer was likely no.

87m Facebook profiles were targeted with the data being then sold to Cambridge Analytica. At this point in time, Cambridge Analytica was harvesting the data in order to aid Trump’s political campaign. Christopher Wylie, a co-founder of the company, detailed that the data was then used to create “psychographic” profiles of the voters, by going through users posts, stories, friends, photos, and private messages; there was no stone left unturned, and no message unread. In regards to the Trump campaign, after congealing the data of the American public, not every voter was then targeted equally: they were targeted if they were deemed a “persuadable.” This is someone who could be persuaded to vote either way. Once the “persuadables” had been identified, Cambridge Analytica’s creative team then created personalised content to target these voters until they voted for Trump, their candidate. Brittany Kaiser, former business development director of Cambridge Analytica describes it “as a boomerang, you send your data out, it gets analysed, and it comes back at you as targeted messaging to change your behaviour.” So how many of these personalised ads did they create? 50-60,000 a day, resulting in a whopping 5.9m ads in total.

What we can learn from this is, when you have a conversation with your friends and an ad pops up for that exact thing you were talking about, it isn’t because your phone is eavesdropping: it’s because it’s doing its job correctly. Every like, tap, stream, and share all amounts to our digital footprint. Not only is social media to blame, but even our google search history is a goldmine of information to these companies. The most valuable of our data is our online spending habits; be it through Apple Pay, Google Pay, online banking, or simply buying something off of Amazon, your purchasing habits is one of the most valuable pieces of data on the market. However, there’s not enough hours in the day to read every War and Peace sized terms and conditions agreement, so legally we agree to what they say, but do we really know what we’re saying yes to?

But don’t let their constant surveillance inflate your ego too much: advertisers do not care about you as an individual, as it would be far too complex and almost impossible to predict the exact actions of one person. However, they can predict what a large group of people with the same trend may do. We are categorised via cookies where companies predict what we are going to think, want, or do.

Since the scandal, despite a fine, Facebook still operates. Last month Privacy International reported that several menstrual tracking apps had been sharing personal data with Facebook. These apps document your health, sexual activity, moods, pregnancy status: a lot of which some people don’t even share with their closest friends. In 2018, Zuckerberg promised a “clear history” tool, that took a year in the making. However, the finished product isn’t actually “a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook” as it was advertised, rather it is a “disconnect from history” tool, where your data is still harvested but you’re anonymous now. It’s clear nothing is changing soon in regards to Facebook’s data tracking.

Now I’m not saying you should read this and throw all your technological devices in the skip and camp out in the wilderness from here on out, but being savvy is important. Avoid those long social media posts ranting including any personal information, use private search engines, maintain your computer’s health, and changing your privacy settings. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last large data breach. In fact, they happen so frequently now you can expect at least one large data breach from a corporation a week. Silicon Valley knows more about us than we do about each other, and now I don’t believe there is any arc of redemption. The age of online privacy is over.

There is a reason why data has surpassed oil as the most valuable commodity.