Tagged: Cambridge Analytica

Facebook, the STASI, KitKats, the NSA and a digital caste system: defining the privacy problem

The GDPR (as played by King Canute) and the rising tide of data (as played by The Sea)

Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress is a good example of the extent to which politicians and regulators have no idea, to quote The Donald, of “what on earth is going on”. It is not just them, this lack of understanding extends into the communities of thought and opinion framed by academia and journalism. This is a problem, because it means we have not yet identified the questions we need to be asking or the problems we need to be solving. If we think we are going to achieve anything by hauling Mark Zuckerberg over the coals, or telling Facebook to “act on data privacy or face regulation”,  we have another think coming.

This is my attempt to provide that think.

The Google search and anonymity problem

Let’s start with Google Search. Imagine you sit down at a computer in a public library (i.e. a computer that has no data history associated with you) and type a question into Google. In this situation you are reasonably anonymous, especially if we imagine that the computer has a browser that isn’t tracking track search history. Despite this anonymity, Google can serve you up an answer that is incredibly specific to you and what it is you are looking for. Google knows almost nothing about you, yet is able to infer a very great deal about you – at least in relation to the very specific task associated with finding an answer to your question. It can do this because it (or its algorithms) ‘knows’ a very great deal about everyone or everything in relation to this specific search term.

So what? Most people sort of know this is how Google works and understand that Google uses data derived from how we all use Google, to make our individual experiences of Google better. But hidden within this seemingly benign and beneficial use of data is the same algorithmic process that could drive cyber warfare or mass surveillance. It therefore has incredibly important implications for how we think about privacy and regulation, not least because we have to find a way to outlaw the things we don’t like, while still allowing the things that we do (like search). You could call this the Google search problem or possibly the Google anonymity problem, because it demonstrates that in the world of the algorthm, anonymity has very little meaning and provides very little defence.

The Stasi problem

When you frame laws or regulations you need to start with defining what sort of problem you are trying to solve or avoid. To date the starting point for regulations on data and privacy (including the GDPR – the regulation to come) is what I call the STASI problem. The STASI was the East German Security Service and it was responsible for a mass surveillance operation that encouraged people to spy on each other and was thus able to amass detailed data files on a huge number of its citizens. The thinking behind this, and indeed the thinking applied to the usage of personal data everywhere in the age before big data, is that the only way to ‘know’ stuff about a person is to collect as much information about them as possible. The more information you have, the more complete the story and the better your understanding. At the heart of this approach is the concept that there exists in some form a data file on an individual which can be interrogated, read or owned.

The ability of a state or an organisation to compile such data files was seen as a bad thing and our approach to data regulation and privacy has therefore been based on trying to stop this from happening. This is why we have focused on things like anonymity, in the belief that a personal data file without a name attached to it becomes largely useless in terms of its impact on the individual to whom the data relates. Or we have established rights that allow us to see these data files, so that we can check that they don’t contain wrong information or give us the ability to edit, correct or withdraw information. Alternatively, regulation has sought to establish rights for us to determine how our the data in the file data is used or for us to have some sort of ownership or control over that data, wherever they may be held.

But think again about the Google search example. Our anonymity had no material bearing on what Google was able to do. It was able to infer a very great deal about us – in relation to a specific task –  without actually knowing anything about us. It did this because it knew a lot about everything, which it had gained from gathering a very small amount of data from a huge number of people (i.e. everyone who had previously entered that same search term). It was analysing data laterally, not vertically. This is what I call Google anonymity, and it is a key part of Google’s privacy defence when it comes to things such as gmail. If you have a gmail account, Google ‘reads’ all your emails. If you have Google keyboard on your mobile, Google ‘knows’ everything that you enter into your mobile (including the passwords to your bank account) – but Google will say that it doesn’t really know this because algorithmic reading and knowledge is a different sort of thing. We can all swim in a sea of Google anonymity right up until the moment a data fisherman (such as a Google search query) gets us on the hook.

The reason this defence (sort of) stacks-up is that Google can only really know your bank account password is if it analyses your data vertically. The personal data file is a vertical form of data analysis. It requires that you mine downwards and digest all the data to then derive any range of conclusions about the person to whom that data corresponds. It has its limitations, as the Stasi found out, in that if you collect too much data you suffer from data overload. The bigger each file becomes the more cumbersome it is to read or digest the information that lies within it. It is a small data approach. Anyone who talks about data overload or data noise is a small data person.

Now while it might have been possible to get the Stasi to supply all the information it has on you, the idea that you place the same requirement on Google is ridiculous. If I think about all the Google services I use and the vast amount of data this generates, there is no way this data could be assembled into a single file and even if it could, it would have no meaning, because the way it would be structured has no relevance to the way in which Google uses this data. Google already has vastly more data on me than the biggest data file the STASI ever had on a single individual. But this doesn’t mean that Google actually knows anything about me as an individual. I still have a form of anonymity, but this anoymity is largely useless because it has no bearing on the outcomes that derive from the usage of my data.

The KitKat Problem

Algorithms don’t suffer from data overload, not just because of the speed at which they can process information but because they are designed to create shortcuts through the process of correlations and pattern recognition. One of the most revealing nuggets of information within Carole Cadwalladr’s expose of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica ‘scandal’ was the fact that a data agency of the like of Cambridge Analytica working for a state intelligence service had discovered a correlation between people who self-confess to hating Israel and a tendency to like Nike trainers and KitKats. This exercise, in fact, became known as Operation KitKat. To put it another way, with an algorithm it is possible to infer something very consequential about someone (that they hate Israel) not by a detailed analysis of their data file, but by looking at consumption of chocolate bars. This is an issue I first flagged back in 2012.

I think this is possibly the most important revelation of the whole saga, because, as with the Google search example it cuts right to the heart of the issue and exposes the extent to which our current definition of the problem is so misplaced. We shouldn’t be worrying about the STASI problem, we should be worried about the KitKat problem. Operation KitKat demonstrates two of the fundamental characteristics of algorithmic analysis (or algorithmic surveillance). First, not only can you derive something quite significant about a person based on data that has nothing whatsoever to do with what it is you are looking for. Second, algorithms can tell you what to do (discover haters of Israel by looking at chocolate and trainers) without the need to understand why this works. An algorithm cannot tell you why there is a link between haters of Israel and KitKats. There may not even be reason that makes any sort of sense. Algorithms cannot explain themselves, they leave no audit trail – they are the classic black box.

The reason this is so important is that it drives a cart and horse through any form of regulation that tries to establish a link between any one piece of data and the use to which that data is then put. How could one create a piece of legislation that requires manufacturers or retailers of KitKats to anticipate (and otherwise encourage or prevent) data about their product being used to identify haters of Israel? It also scuppers the idea that any form protection can be provided through the act of data ownership.  You cannot make the consumption of a chocolate bar or the wearing of trainers a private act, the data on which is ‘owned’ by the people concerned.

KitKats and trainers bring us neatly to the Internet of Things. Up until now we have been able to assume that most data is created by, or about, people. This is about to change as the amount of data produced by people is dwarfed by the amount of data produced by things. How do we establish rules about data produced by things especially when it is data about other things? If your fridge is talking to your lighting about your heating thermostat, who owns that conversation? There is a form of Facebook emerging for objects and it is going to be much bigger than the Facebook for people.

Within this world the concept of personal data as a discrete category will melt away and instead we will see the emergence of vaste new swathes of data, most of which is entirely unregulatable or even unownable.

The digital caste problem

A recent blog post by Doc Searls has made the point that what Facebook has been doing is simply the tip of an iceberg, in that all online publishers or any owners of digital platforms are doing the same thing to create targeted digital advertising opportunities. However, targeted digital advertising is itself the tip of a much bigger iceberg. One of Edward Snowden’s Wikileaks exposures concerned something known as Operation Prism. This was (probably still is) a programme run by the NSA in the US that involves the abilty to hoover-up huge swathes of data from all of the world’s biggest internet companies. Snowden also revealed that the UK’s GCHQ is copying huge chunks of the internet by accessing the data cables that carry internet traffic. This expropriation of data is essentially the same as Cambridge Analytica’s usage of the ‘breach’ of Facebook data, except on a vastly greater scale. Cambridge Analytica used their slice of Facebook to create a targeting algorithm to analyse political behaviour or intentions, whereas GCHQ or the NSA can use their slice of the internet to create algorithms that analyse the behaviour or intentions of all of us about pretty much anything. Apparently GCHQ only holds the data it copies for a maximum of 30 days, but once you have built your algorithms and are engaged in a process of real-time sifting, the data that you used to build the agorithm in the first place, or the data that you then sift through it, is of no real value anymore. Retention of data is only an issue if you are still thinking about personal data files and the STASI problem.

This is all quite concerning on a number of levels, but when it comes to thinking about data regulation it highlights the fact that, provided we wish to maintain the idea that we live in a democracy where governments can’t operate above the law, any form of regulation you might decide to apply to Facebook and any current or future Cambridge Analyticas also has to apply to GCHQ and the NSA. The NSA deserves to be put in front of Congress just as much as Mark Zuckerberg.

Furthermore, it highlights the extent to which this is so much bigger than digital advertising. We are moving towards a society structured along lines defined by a form of digital caste system. We will all be assigned membership of a digital caste. This won’t be fixed but will be related to specific tasks in the same way that Google search’s understanding of us is related to the specific task of answering a particular search query. These tasks could be as varied as providing us with search results, to deciding whether to loan us money, or whether we are a potential terrorist. For some things we may be desirable digital Brahmins, for others we may be digital untouchables and it will be algorithms that will determine our status. And the data the algorithms use to do this could come from KitKats and fridges – not through any detailed analysis of our personal data files. In this world the reality of our lives becomes little more than personal opinion: we are what the algorithm says we are, and the algorithm can’t or won’t tell us why it thinks that. In a strange way, creating a big personal data file and making this available is the only way to provide protection in this world so that we can ‘prove’ our identity (cue reference to a Blockchain solution which I could devise if I knew more about Blockchains), rather than have an algorithmic identity (or caste) assigned to us. Or to put it another way, the problem we are seeking to avoid could actually be a solution to the real problem we need to solve.

The digital caste problem is the one we really need to be focused on.

The challenge

So – the challenge is how do we prevent or manage the emergence of a digital caste system. And how do we do this in a way which still allows Google search to operate, doesn’t require that we make consumption of chocolate bars a private act or regulate conversations between household objects (and all the things on the Internet of Things) and can apply both to the operations of Facebook and the NSA. I don’t see any evidence thus far the the great and the good have any clue that this is what they need to be thinking about. If there is any clue as to the direction of travel it is that the focus needs to be on the algorithms, not the data they feed on.

We live in a world of a rising tide of data, and trying to control the tides is a futile exercise, as Canute the Great demonstrated in the 11th century. The only difference between then and now is that Canute understood this, and his exercise in placing his seat by the ocean was designed to demostrate the limits of kingly power. The GDPR is currently dragging its regulatory throne to the waters edge anticipating an entirely different outcome.

 

 

 

 

 

Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and data: was it illegal, does that matter?

For the last year Carole Cadwalladr at the Observer has been doing a very important job exposing the activities of Cambridge Analytica and its role in creating targeted political advertising using data sourced, primarily, from Facebook. It is only now, with the latest revelations published in this week’s Observer, that her work is starting to gain political traction.

This is an exercise in shining a light where a light needs to be shone. The problem however is in illuminating something that is actually illegal. Currently the focus is on the way in which CA obtained the data it then used to create its targeting algorithm and whether this happened with either the consent or knowledge of Facebook or the individuals concerned. But this misses the real issue. The problem with algorithms is not the data that they feed on. The problem is that an algorithm, by its very nature, drives a horse and cart through all of the regulatory frameworks we have in place, mostly because these regulations have data as their starting point. This is one of the reasons why the new set of European data regulations – the GDPR – which come in to force in a couple of months, are unlikely to be much use in preventing US billionaires from influencing elections.

If we look at what CA appear to have been doing, laying aside the data acquisition issue, it is hard to see what is actually illegal. Facebook has been criticised for not being sufficiently rigourous in how it policed the usage of its data but, I would speculate, the reason for this is that CA was not doing anything particularly different from what Facebook itself does with its own algorithms within the privacy of its own algorithmic workshops. The only difference is that Facebook does this to target brand messages (because that is where the money is), whereas CA does it to target political messages. Since the output of the CA activity was still Facebook ads (and thus Facebook revenue), from Facebook’s perspective their work appeared to be little more that a form of outsourcing and thus didn’t initially set-off any major alarm bells.

This is the problem if you make ownership or control of the data the issue – it makes it very difficult to discriminate between what we have come to accept as ‘normal’ brand activities and cyber warfare. Data is data: the issue is not who owns it, it is what you do with it.

We are creating a datafied society, whether we like it or not. Data is becoming ubiquitous and seeking to control data will soon be recognised as a futile exercise. Algorithms are the genes of a datafied society: the billons of pieces of code that at one level all have their specific, isolated, purpose but which, collectively, can come to shape the operation of the entire organism (that organism being society itself). Currently, the only people with the resources or incentive to write society’s algorithmic code are large corporations or very wealthy individuals and they are doing this, to a large extent, outside of the view, scope or interest of either governments or the public. This is the problem. The regulatory starting point therefore needs to be the algorithms, not the data, and creating both transparency and control over their ownership and purpose.

Carol’s work is so important because it brings this activity into view. We should not be distracted or deterred by the desire to detect illegality because this ultimately plays to the agenda of the billionaires. What is happening is very dangerous and that danger cannot be contained by the current legal cage, but it can be constrained by transparency.