Data Breach Detected Tell tales of conquest, war, famine, and death – harbingers of the 21st century doom.
Hector O. Cofreros
Carol* endlessly glides her fingers back and forth across her social media feed. Interrupting her fun, an advertisement for an upcoming discount sale of a clothing brand pops in – occupying a small portion of her screen. At first, she didn’t pay attention to it but curiosity creeps on her. She clicked the ad and it opened a tab with details about it. For a bit, she scrolled through it though, worse-case happened. Numerous pop-up tabs appear and her phone’s security software starts to send crazy alerts.
For sure, at least once, we kind of had the same experience like Carol’s. Whether it was a simple ad or the one Carol had, our encounter with ads can escalate from simple annoyance to a frightening experience. However, what can be interesting is how we respond from the time we saw that ad. The whole time it was a trick. We were manipulated. Our possible reactions were predicted. The advertisement, though how odd it seemed, was there on purpose – to target us. But, is that even possible?
FOOTPRINTS IN THE VIRTUAL COMMUNITY
Over the course of the COVID-19 Pandemic, almost everything and everyone practically shifted to the virtual space. Primary activities such as work, education, and commerce formally intruded the online realm. People spend more time on their devices than actual social interactions. Perhaps, in a study recently conducted by We Are Social and Hootsuite called Digital 2021, Filipinos topped among users worldwide in time spent in a day surfing the internet with 10 hours and 56 minutes on average. In contrast, it was higher compared to last year with an average of nine hours and 45 minutes. People spending more time online mean creation of more digital footprints. TechTerms defines digital footprint as data trails that users intentionally and unintentionally create while using the internet. These data ranges from ”cookies” that stores codes that identifies devices and activities of users when they visit sites to personal information users provided and consented to when signing up in a website.
For the least part, cookies were the ones responsible why ads follow users wherever they go in the internet. Cookies track their online activities. They help users access sites by remembering their previous actions, however, they are also responsible in providing psychological reinforcements to affirm the user’s patterns of behavior online such as buying online and frequent visits to sites.
DATA HARVESTING INDUSTRY
The personal information shared by users online becomes a significant tool for various things. It uncovers a multibillion-dollar industry. Every time users openly provide their personal information to websites when signing up, they make themselves more vulnerable to be targeted by specific ads based on the demographics they provided such as their age, race, sex, gender, and among others. In short, they become the target of advertisements made specifically for them. Thus, users need to review the terms and conditions of websites they access and sign up to and understand how their data be stored and used by these websites.
Moreover, most companies acknowledge the importance of data analytics in the growth and development of their businesses. According to ResearchandMarkets.com, by 2023 big data analytics industry will reach a global market worth of $40.6 billion. The realization among enterprises of the importance of data analytics fuels growth for the technology to be in-demand in the market. The increasing growth of the industry in the global market shows no signs of slowing down in the near future.
AGREEING WITH THE ‘TERMS AND CONDITIONS’?
In a survey conducted by a multinational company, Deloitte, in the United States alone with 2,000 consumers as participants found that over 90 percent give consent to legal terms and services conditions without reading them. The statistics even peaked at 97 percent for younger people aging 18-34 that do not read before agreeing to the conditions. Similarly, a social experiment by Proprivacy.com found that only one percent have actually read the terms and conditions they have formulated for the experiment. The rest of the participants have consented to ridiculous things that the researchers have purposefully inserted in the terms and conditions like the naming rights of their first-born child and browsing history access to their mothers.
The problem can be primarily traced to how the texts of terms and conditions are written. In 2019, a study published by two law professors in Boston College Law Review found that 99 percent of the 500 most popular U.S. websites had terms of service written as complex as academic journals, making them incomprehensible to most people. Whether the terms and conditions were purposefully designed to look unsuspicious yet deceiving, people should read what they are about to enter and agree with. Any malicious words and provisions inserted in the contractual terms and conditions can be used against those who agreed and accepted it.
DATA AS A (POLITICAL) TOOL
Let’s take a look closely at two big data companies and social media platforms – Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. These data companies were permitted by users to gather, store, and exploit their data in exchange for use of their platform services. These data companies collect not only user demographics but also psychographic profiles of users which include their habits, hobbies, values, and also might include locations they frequently visit. These data are either sold to other advertising companies or used by Facebook and Google to run advertisements on their platforms. With the collected data, advertisements can easily run and reach specific target consumers.
However, in recent years, it was found out that similar schemes were employed by political campaigns in targeting voters. There had been debates and hearings on whether this sharing and selling of user data for political purposes were legal and ethical in the first place.
DATA BREACH SCANDAL
In 2018, Facebook was placed under public and legal scrutiny after a data breach scandal blew up with Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm. Initial estimates suggested that data from at least 50 million Facebook accounts were compromised but a later assessment increased the breach to up to 87 million accounts. Facebook said that the leaked personal information of users was accessed and harvested by Aleksandr Kogan, an outside researcher, who claimed that he has been collecting data sets for academic purposes. Kogan collected data through a personality quiz app that gains access to Facebook accounts of respondents which in turn they reward with. The project was funded by Cambridge Analytica who brought the services of Kogan’s company.
What could have been found disturbing with the data leaks is that the breach of user information from the social media site has allowed the firm to exploit the private social media activity of almost a quarter of American voters and had helped develop techniques that were later used in President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.
DATA ANALYTICS IN PHILIPPINE POLITICS
Meanwhile, in the Philippines during an interview of Rappler in July 2020, Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower said that Bongbong Marcos, son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, requested for a ‘family rebranding’. However, Marcos’s camp denied that he had reached out to the data analytics firm. Moreover, Kaiser added that Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica visited the Philippines shortly before the 2016 National Elections to meet several candidates and to solidify a partnership with the top local consultancy firm in the country to make sure on the ground partners for a successful campaign to run.
Jamaica Molaga, a faculty member of the Political Science Department of the University of San Agustin sees these political activities as very alarming. She said, “This kind of access and data collection without consent is not just a violation of one’s privacy but more like a threat to Philippine democracy, if we look at its political side. The exploitation of private social media activities of their respondents and/or users can also be considered as an act of manipulation in order to pursue their own political agenda.”
Voters and internet users were asked how they feel about the exploitation of their personal data for commercial and political purposes. For Renz Inquit , a third year Political Science student, data privacy is important. He said, “Political consultancy companies are collecting, analyzing and using data in order to powerfully influence populations who are generally unaware of how their data is being processed. As a voter, this puts me at a risk because politicians that possess my data will use them however, they want to influence my political opinions.” For Zwitterion*, this scheme is invasive and unethical. “Using my personal data in targeting me and influencing my political opinion and views for future elections, for me as someone who values my privacy and personal data is very invasive and violating even just for politics. In addition, this strategy is also unethical even for those who are planning to run for higher government office, showing politicians will just do anything just for the sake of winning. Acts like this should not be tolerated even for politicians especially those who have the means,” he remarked.
‘THE FUTURE IS OPEN’
As of the writing of this article, Cambridge Analytica has already ceased operation. Whether it was true or not that local politicians patronized data analytics technology for political purposes, there can be a possibility that it can happen in the future Philippine election. For sure, there exists or to be put up data analytics company, the same as Cambridge Analytica, that can offer maybe a more advanced technology and a more advanced data profiling of voters.
The data breach scandal, between Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and a portion of Americans whose data were compromised, is barely a scratch on the surface of how data analytics technologies are being used and tested to manipulate the behavior of a general population or of a specific group of people. The possibility that technologies and social media could be weaponized in altering democratic processes poses a big threat on the future of democracies around the world.
The future of the data analytics industry and the privacy and security of internet users are still in haze. Personal data are already weapons against who owns them. The fact that advertisements and campaigns on the internet are generated through data-driven schemes, anyone can be easily targeted by marketing and political propaganda. No one knows exactly if data analytics technology has still something to evolve into in the future or that strong regulations will be put in place to provide ethical and legal boundaries in data harvesting schemes and in the access and use of one’s personal information for commercial and political purposes.
Published: April 25, 2022