Brittany Kaiser ’05 believes that Facebook is the biggest threat to democracy. As one of the whistleblowers for the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, Kaiser released her memoir, “Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again,” last Tuesday.
In early 2018, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted as ex-employee Christopher Wylie revealed internal evidence supporting the claim that Cambridge Analytica, a British private consulting firm, had harvested personal information from up to 87 million Facebook profiles for targeted ads. These targeted ads included political advertising for the Trump 2016 Presidential Campaign. Kaiser had been a director at Cambridge Analytica for three years when this information was released.
Kaiser did not begin to understand the implications of her work until Trump won the 2016 election. She then realized that her work at Cambridge Analytica directly contributed to spreading the campaign’s divisive rhetoric, which she did not expect to be so effective[a], according to an article in The Washington Post.
“I felt like I’d spent many years making excuses for my executives and making excuses for political candidates I was representing and their views, when some of those political views, in my mind, were very distasteful…I feel a bit annoyed that I spent three and a half years of my life pushing other people’s agendas,” said Kaiser in an interview with “Elle Magazine” in 2018.
However, Kaiser did not become a whistleblower until after the first stories of Cambridge Analytica began to surface, prompting many to believe that her book was a result of her trying to save her legacy as opposed to righting her wrongs, as explained by Andrew Limbong at N.P.R. Nonetheless, Kaiser now advocates against big companies like Facebook that sell the data of millions of Americans to advertisement companies, according to Kaiser. She started the #ownyourdata campaign in April 2018, and she recently appeared in “The Great Hack,” a 2019 Netflix documentary about Cambridge Analytica.
“Corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, all of these large companies, are making tens or hundreds of billions of dollars off of monetising people’s data. I’ve been telling companies and governments for years that data is probably your most valuable asset. Individuals should be able to monetise their own data– that’s their own human value– not to be exploited,” said Kaiser said in an interview with “The Guardian” in 2018.
Kaiser told CBS that in the United States, consent is not required for your data to be collected. A person’s financial information can be shared by credit card companies to ultimately reach political consulting firms.
“Just by being in the United States you have pre-opted in. The law doesn’t protect you, so these companies can continue collecting data on you, [it can] continue to be sold and used for any purposes without your knowledge,” Kaiser said in an interview with CBS.
According to Kaiser’s book, by allowing companies to view their personal information, consumers are giving corporations the ability to manipulate consumers’ decisions.
While users are advised to exercise caution with their privacy, companies and content producers also have a responsibility in their ethics, according to Stephen Russell, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science. He explained how it is necessary to not only facilitate conversations with students about data and privacy from the perspective of users, but to also consider them from the role of creators.
“It’s important to have students not just discuss privacy, but also think about what responsibilities they might have as creators of software that deals with privacy. In [the Computer Science class I teach], we try to think about what different parties are involved in privacy (users, corporations, employees, governments etc.) and what obligations each group has,” wrote Russell in an email to The Phillipian.
Leila Hardy ’22 believes that the only way to fight against large companies’ unethical use of personal information is through political and social action that the whistleblowers demonstrated. According to Hardy, the Cambridge Analytica scandal changed how the public views social media.
Hardy said, “Through finding out the way that Cambridge Analytica was owning and utilizing people’s data, it led to a shift in the way that people trust social media, generally speaking. People no longer see social media as something is within their control because it has obviously been proven that social media companies value money and growth internally rather than ethics and benefiting the world.”