When news broke that a firm was able to illegally harvest, analyze and use our own data against us, we were horrified. We couldn’t believe that a scheme like this could run for so long undetected. It wasn’t just terrifying but infuriating. The bodies to which we had entrusted power i.e Big Tech had failed us. It was becoming increasingly apparent that these tech gods couldn’t handle such a responsibility. This was the tipping point. People finally had enough. The whole Cambridge Analytica data scandal pointed to a larger issue – corporate accountability.
The story came at a time when the public’s trust for Facebook was at an all-time low. Simultaneously, the world was (and still is) shifting towards authoritarianism. Across the world, many democracies were slipping to authoritarian rule. To many, this was extremely distressing and inexplicable. Learning about Cambridge Analytica’s impact provided a gut-wrenching explanation to such a phenomenon.
For Cambridge Analytica to exploit a simple feature from Facebook and turn it into such a powerful tool was terrifying to comprehend but arguably more so was Facebook’s inaction. Knowing about the data that Cambridge Analytica had, they didn’t do nearly enough to prevent its misuse. To exploit a loophole is one thing, but knowingly let it continue is, at best, negligent; especially when your business model rides on your reputation.
The reason this scandal gained traction was that it highlighted two key issues. One was that such an anti-democratic tool could be created and another that tech companies weren’t willing to take responsibility for their own products.
The second issue is one that has been persistent. Even more so in recent years. It is time countries hold corporations accountable to their actions and corporations begin to proactive put out the fires they unknowingly create. This might not seem like a fair ask but if these companies continue to profit off of ‘social good’ it is time that they act towards it.
The first issue highlights how far technologies have developed and sadly that laws haven’t been able to keep up. Threats to democracy have always persisted but the power of technology is far-reaching and frightening. While violence and fears over the economy have been blunt instruments used to create panic, technology is the silent tool that can thwart democracies. Today, even if authoritarian regimes pop up they will be smart enough to hide it under the guise of elections. Since elections confer some form of legitimacy many countries will continue to hold elections but if the fairness of these processes is tampered with, we will begin to live in a world of pseudo-democracies that mask the authoritarian regimes that will take over.
There isn’t still a clear way forward to fight this but as of now, vigilance is our best weapon.