The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and Inevitable Abuses that Inevitably Happen

So, you’re probably aware of the furor over Cambridge Analytica. They scraped Facebook’s database and used the psychological information to craft their campaign. They have also been caught on tape admitting they do dirty tricks like honey traps, and propaganda (knowing lies).

And there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

First of all, it is essentially impossible that they are the first group to scrape Facebook’s database, as Atrios points out.

The data is there for the taking, and I am sure many others have done so, including both Democrats and Republicans.

Second, the techniques Analytica used against the US are extensions of techniques used against other countries regularly, and especially against the Muslim, Russian, and post-USSR world. To the extent that Russia is involved, they likely regard this is a fair play–they’re just doing what the West has done to them, post-USSR Republics, and their allies for many years.

Third, Facebook is a data-gathering organization, as is Google. What they do is create psyshological and life-event profiles so that advertisers can manipulate people to sell to them. This is hardly different from using the same data to manipulate people to sell candidates or policies.

Cambridge Analytica is just one part of an entire industry set up around this sort of information. Peter Thiel’s Palantir does much the same general sort of stuff, but Thiel is smart, and does it for the US military and spies, so he is protected, even though Palantir does far more evil.

There are certain doors that should not be opened. Collection of this sort of data is probably past one of these doors. The problem isn’t just scraping, the problem is that it will inevitably, and I do mean inevitably, wind up available to anyone. Every leak, every hack, is available, and so many records from so many companies have leaked that you have to simply assume your information is available to anyone who cares enough to plunk down a little money, or who is a little code savvy.

Just as information on who was what religion was used by Nazis to hunt and kill Jews, and just as when it was destroyed, it saved lives, this information will inevitably be abused. So one has to ask if the public good of knowing it and having everyone able to know it, is superseded by the public bad of knowing it, and having everyone able to know it.

As with moving from physical cash to electronic cash, I think the answer is no. (I know the answer is no with respect to cash.)

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  1. atcooper

    If the tech were secure I fear it’s totalitarian nature would overwhelm us. Thankfully, the very act of digitizing creates the holes in which the human spirit can still breathe

  2. atcooper

    Just added to my resume:

    Mastery of logic’s limitations

    Bit hyperbolic, but whatever

  3. Boiled down to ones and zeros, balls on the brass monkey, they didn’t “steal” anything. They effectively used the tools available to them to satisfy the contract they entered into. It’s just business. They didn’t do anything the banks haven’t been doing since Y2K; Obama in oh-twelve, or Clinton in the Goat Rodeo.

    I have no sympathy, everyone downloaded the app, they all “joined” Zuckerberg’s Famous Pig, everyone one of them clicked on (((accept))) without reading the fine print.

    Fifteen years ago I was teaching community college students to be aware of these issues, that you really shouldn’t be logging on to ashley madison dot com with your wife’s credit card, or put something out there you wouldn’t want your mother, or the cops, to see; that since Y2K we have been willingly building a digital profile of ourselves we have no control over … it’s not sci fi, it’s real, it’s happening, now, and … I was gotten rid of. By a religiously racist, misogynous, homophobic, old testament authoritarian, dominionist no doubt Trump voting bigot with half my education and half my experience but none-the-less in a position to get away with harassing and ultimately forcing me to quit the career I had worked fifteen years and invested tens of thousands of dollars in educational expenses to have …

    As with all else, we brought it ourselves. We bought the ticket.

  4. Hugh

    I agree that selling information on their users is the business model of companies like Facebook and Google. And it was inevitable that what was used for economic reasons would be used for political ones. It wasn’t that Facebook was incredibly sloppy. It was that the people there are only interested in the ka-ching and stupendously uninterested in how user data are used by third parties, i.e. the people they sell it too. So yes, Cambridge Analytica obtained the data through a fraud, both against Facebook and its users, but Facebook had zero controls, monitoring, follow-up, or enforcement to protect its users or and how those data were used. And this is not a bug but a feature.

  5. Germ

    Watch this amazing video to grasp how the digital online manipulation works.

  6. Neil Dunn

    “spyschological” = best word of 2018.

    Just wonder how long NSA has be gathering both CA and Facebook’s data?

  7. realitychecker


    It was fun while it lasted.

  8. Sid Finster

    Apparently now Trump is guilty of the crime of better data mining.

  9. Tom

    In short, the real story is that facebook has holes in its security you can drive a bus through. Its why I don’t use facebook ever. Those who do and get burned, well that is on you.

  10. wendy davis

    a plug for julian assange he’d tweeted yesterday: from 2011, ‘Julian Assange: Facebook is a “spy machine” for US Intelligence’

  11. Willy

    CA was of course, strongly influenced by people like the Mercers and Steve Bannon, who were just fighting for our freedoms. Or our freedom to be naive. Or their freedom to manipulate the freely naive. Or something like that.

  12. mago

    It always amazes that anyone is shocked and surprised by this activity.

  13. Webstir

    Neil Dunn:

    Agreed on the “spyschological” nomination. It definitely got a wry grin out of me when I read it.

    And, I’ll say it again because I think it especially bears repeating in the context of this post:
    Thoreau’s warning about men becoming the tools of their tools has passed it’s “best by” date. Today, we willing sign up to be tools of our toolmakers.

  14. Hugh

    There is this myth of the smartest guys in the room. That’s what they used to say about the guys at Enron before it exploded into bankruptcy and fraud. It’s what some still say about Goldman, although not as often, after its needing to be bailed out twice in 8 days during the 2008 meltdown. Facebook is just the latest example. After the 2011 consent decree, they should have seen the Cambridge Analytica fiasco coming for miles, but not only did they not, Zuckerberg et al have totally blown the response. It takes Zuckerberg nearly a week of increasingly bad press, and more importantly a dive in FB’s valuation, before he can be bothered to say anything. And when he does, it is the sort of “I take full responsibility for this, except for the full and responsibility parts” that we used to expect from politicians (before Trump came along). Bartender, a bottle Aof your best Schadenfreude all around.

  15. Hugh

    On a completely different subject, I did not know until just now that Pinch, son of Punch, Sulzberger had passed on the torch, or the swag, or whatever at the New York Times to his son. I nominate Pooch as the name for this latest illegitimate scion of the Gray Lady.

  16. ponderer

    It’s interesting how mentioning Google, Facebook, or Big Tech can turn one’s view from benevolent liberal (we’ve got to protect the poor and powerless from ruthless big business, ‘gummit) to staunch Libertarians (you should have known not to drink from the poisoned well). I’ve fallen for this a few times myself to my shame. “We” know these things about Facebook, etc. but there isn’t any advertisement or article in the main stream media that spells these things out for people and how it can affect them any more than bombing some country in a non-war war, or WMD, Bear Sterns, Enron, Day traders in the late 90’s… The most vulnerable to technology (the young once again) have the least amount of experience,context and the most peer pressure. There are a lot of things that aren’t talked about openly that can make one feel like the smartest guy in the room when a neophyte shows their ignorance, but that is itself a propaganda trap for the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” crowd. The “smartest guy” is just tomorrows sucker waiting to be plunged into unknown waters (or cross the street in AZ). Accumulating any amount of knowledge can make one forget just how little one knows.

  17. highrpm

    NYT certainly appears to be a lapdog for ??? as is the waPOS. news as entertainment. helluva exciting & fun life. like recess on the elementary school playground.

  18. It IS a bit delusional to expect even a modicum of privacy for anything you post online, as just about anyone can access whatever it is you write.

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