I read an interesting article tonight called The Data That Turned the World Upside Down and it explores the idea that perhaps the recent 2016 US Election was influenced by political campaigns being able to profile undecided voters based on their online digital footprint, and then target them with highly personalized adverts.
It’s worth taking some time to read the entire article and learn how through a combination of Facebook users completing a free online personality quiz, combined with their Facebook activity (primarily what they “liked”), researchers were able to establish highly accurate models for predicting certain things about users.
The strength of their modeling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers … before long, [researchers were] able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew.
Another fascinating quote from the article showed that the researchers were able to:
prove that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.
It’s a timely conversation because last Friday I was chatting with colleagues from the former school I worked in and one of them mentioned that students these days have no sense of privacy or concern about the volume of data that is known about them by large companies and/or the government. One of the teachers I was speaking to compared it with George Orwell’s famous novel, Nineteen Eighty Four which if you’re unfamiliar with this the Wikipedia overview describes it as:
a dystopian novel published in 1949 by English author George Orwell. The novel is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation.… The superstate is under the control of the privileged elite of the Inner Party, a party and government that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as “thoughtcrime”, which is enforced by the “Thought Police”. (Underlines are my emphasis)
The contrast the teacher made, however, was rather than the government obtaining all of this information through huge surveillance and intrusion into the private lives of citizens, nowadays people are freely giving up this data to multi-nationals who are on-selling this to research firms who are then finding correlations. Again, from the original article linked above, the research firms explained how they obtained the data to support their programmes:
buys personal data from a range of different sources, like land registries, automotive data, shopping data, bonus cards, club memberships, what magazines you read, what churches you attend … in the US, almost all personal data is for sale. For example, if you want to know where Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information, phone numbers included [They then] aggregates this data with the electoral rolls of the Republican party and online data and calculates a Big Five personality profile. Digital footprints suddenly become real people with fears, needs, interests, and residential addresses.
(Emphasis applied is mine)
Now much of this is not new to me – I attended a great session at the AIS NSW ICT Managers Conference in Canberra last year where a Facebook advertising expert demonstrated in real time just how easy it is to create targeted Facebook adverts to virtually any demographic. However when one thinks about this level of data science being used to shape electioneering and potentially sway the final outcomes of elections it should lead to pause for thought.
Like the teacher I was talking to pointed out – we all give up data about ourselves to some extent, the question is really do we consider the true cost of this action?