First we blamed fake news, then the Russians. Everyone we don’t like has ‘hacked’ democracy. But we never blamed us. This week we heard that UK-based Cambridge Analytica has, supposedly, been working hand-in-hand with Facebook to harvest our data and influence elections. The world we demand, demands that they do.
The news would have us believe that what they’ve been up to is unprecedented and entirely illegal. Unfortunately, it seems that what they did was likely legal. It also, I believe, pales into comparison with other data harvesting.
As UK politicians rush to Analytica’s door, smashing it down to defend the people, it’s worth them stopping and remembering some of their own practices. The public may not necessarily enjoy what’s going on.
Since the advent of computer records, companies have searched for ways to utilise data and improve their products. The most breakthrough, in my opinion, was the advent of the Tesco Clubcard. Launched in 1997 the card is now used by over 10million people in the UK. On a regular basis they shop and scan, the computers record and Tesco analyses. Products, bought with what, when, by who, how often, recorded for millions for nearly a quarter of a century. This data helps them send you specific offers, stock their shelves, change pricing and influence shopping habits.
And no-one has complained about that yet. But what political parties are doing is on another level.
Let’s start with the publicly available data. Political parties buy polling data, names of who lives where, everyone over 18 in a house. They can reference this with house prices, so they now know where you live, whether you own a property, how long you’ve lived there and what the property is worth. They’ll be able to ascertain, roughly, your income. All placed alongside your polling record number.
Now for the collected data. Ever signed a political party’s petition? Handing over a name and email, sometimes an address? Add that to the file. Now they know what you are passionate about. Ever filled in a survey “what matters to you”? Add that.
Then there are the lovely people knocking on doors. “Will you be voting for x”? Whatever your answer, you get graded. Voting intentions are recorded, placed against your name.
So, what do we now have? Legally? We now have a pretty good record on what concerns you, your voting intentions and a ‘social status’. So now you can be placed into one of few boxes. Unfortunately, humans fit neatly into a few boxes, we’re very predictable.
What do political parties do with this data? They talk to you.
Next time you get a letter from a political party, go and compare it with a friend. It’ll often be different. Different policy, different statements. In some elections parties have been known to have five orsix different letters go out in a single street.
This would be just the start of what political parties know about you. There is so much more information legally available.
On election day?
All this is fed in, voting intentions and all. We now get a prediction as to the election outcome. Ever wondered how ‘Wizard of Oz’ Lynton Crosby managed to predict Cameron’s surprise 2010 majority?
On election day you march to the polling station, as you leave a nice lady asks for your polling card number. You give it to her, after all she’s lovely. She sends this to party HQ and we know that person X has voted. We know they told us they’d vote for the opposition. Panic sets in, but the good news is that we have five people down the road who said they’d vote for us and who haven’t turned up yet, we dispatch door knockers to remind them it’s voting day. We avoid the areas where opposition votes live, let’s not remind them it’s voting day.
This is just a snapshot. This is Cambridge Analytica on a scale you couldn’t imagine. It’s legal, done by our politicians and no-one is concerned. It’s also been going on for decades and slowly but surely compiled.
It’s also not going to change any time soon. Whilst there are strict new data laws coming into place, what’s going on is still legal.
So, what do we, average Janes and Joes do about this? I think there are only two options, we wise up or give in.
No matter what you hear from any party, be it Labour or Tory, Liberal or Ukip. Whatever Republicans, Democrats, Putin or Kim Jong-Un tell you, they will be using big data. They are not going to crack down on this.
Wising up? It’s possible. Remember you don’t get anything for free, sometimes you are the product. But also wise up to the fact that we demand more targeted ad’s and demand politicians sculpt their policies to our needs. This needs big data.
Giving in? We throw our hands up in the air and say a large collective “meh”. We carry on our lives as we did last week, with our silly social media polls and “which cucumber sandwich are you?” online quizzes. We keep signing petition after petition and spilling our public lives over social media.
Well, we do that, or we surrender a bit of our modern-day luxury for some real privacy. We chop up our Clubcards and forego the vouchers. We get off the internet and into the parks and community centres. We utilise market-led capitalism and say we won’t use your product. We demanded this world, we can demand a change.
Whatever you do, watch the news closely over the next few months. Politicians will stomp over to Analytica, just weeks before local council elections.
The geeks have inherited the Earth already, it’s up to the rest of us to decide if we want to live in their creation.