I saw a quote the other day about free apps that’s stuck with me: “if you’re not paying for it, then you are the product”.
The implication is that in the case of free apps, developers might be collating your data and selling it on, in lieu of you giving them cash. The quote itself may be more than a little cynical, but one thing is undeniable: the question of who stands to benefit from or monetise our personal data is one of the most important conversations happening in the digital era.
GDPR compliance has given more than a few companies sleepless nights, but nothing has put scrutiny on the trade of personal information quite like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Around the world, people are now realising how difficult it can be to control their data and it has become apparent that seemingly innocent things such as personal quizzes on apps and social media can be great ways to get more information about people that can then be passed on to interested parties.
The recent popularity of the FaceApp aging tool is a case in point, prompting concerns about how people’s images are being used. At its core the issue is that users are so habituated to feeding data into apps that pausing to think about how or why it is being asked for becomes an inconvenience.
It’s timely that The Great Hack, a new Netflix documentary out this week, takes a deep dive into the Cambridge Analytica scandal and how the harvesting of personal data has affected real people. There are still many details of the case that remain unanswered, not least because the company is now out of business, but the lessons are becoming clear. As companies push the boundaries of what can be done with personal data, they don’t necessarily stop to think about whether they should be doing it.
For Cambridge Analytica and its clients it became about harnessing powerful tools to win at all costs. The documentary alleges that the company had so much data on voters that it could play actively on their fears with targeted digital content, in one instance with a view to suppressing voter turnout so that their client would face less opposition in an election.
The problem we all face is that the rabbit is out of the hat. Data harvesting tools aren’t going to go away and not all of them are used for malign purposes anyway, so the question is how they should be used or regulated to avoid harm to the democratic systems that society relies upon.
The Great Hack will fuel that debate and indeed it’s already generating a lot of attention around the world (and even one lawsuit) ahead of its launch.
The Great Hack releases on the 24th July 2019 on Netflix.
Social Media Executive