This interview was aired in two parts.
Recent revelations about the mining of Facebook data by British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and its influence on the 2016 U.S. presidential election have spurred a global rethink of digital space. From the user-driven #deletefacebook movement to calls for stricter regulation by German Justice Minister Katarina Barley among others, many are grappling with what a “digital footprint” means today.
According to Varoon Bashyakarla and Gary Wright from Tactical Tech, the difference between practices by data analytics firms and “traditional” election influence lies in the selective targeting of users and the unwitting handover of friends’ data, for example via Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook-linked personality quiz app. The “ability to target people so selectively introduces the danger of this lack of transparency, which is so central to the democratic process,” says Bashyakarla.
Many look to regulation as a way to counterbalance this trend, something Bashyakarla supports in theory, but remains skeptical of in practice. Just as television, radio and print media are regulated, he sees a place for protections on the digital front, but believes “slapping legislation on this challenge is not the be-all, end-all solution… with every piece of legislation that passes, unfortunately there’s always an issue.”
Even if you do deactivate your Facebook account, you leave a lasting data footprint, and Bashyakarla thinks users shouldn’t be held responsible for solving the problems surrounding digital data. “For a lot of us, Facebook is a window into our social networks. Users should not be extracting themselves from their social networks to protect themselves.” Tactical Tech opts instead to inform users how to produce a “lightweight footprint” when using digital platforms, for example by taking a conversation offline whenever possible. The apps on your phones are “data hogs,” warns Wright, but logging in to Facebook over a browser helps.
For Bashyakarla, the actions we take depend on our principles: “perhaps we’re ok with having information about ourselves being used to sell us shoes, but when that same information is used to sell us politicians, perhaps that’s something that we object to more.”