• 05 May - 11 May, 2018
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Spotlight

Dressed to the nines in his crisply pressed suit, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook testified before members of the US Senate and Congress two months ago following the privacy leak scandal his company had been accused of. He responded – rather awkwardly – to the many questions thrown at him one after another during two rigorous enquiry sessions. However, Zuckerberg had already accepted the breach and apologised without providing a detailed admission of his guilt. The personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users – mostly from the United States – had been compromised and all Zuckerberg could do was apologise for sharing their data with the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica (CA), which allegedly harvested user profiles to be illegally used in the 2016 US elections. Following this horrendous breach of privacy, which has raised questions on the misuse of user data around the world, it is the responsibility of world leaders to amp up their efforts in terms of cybersecurity in their countries. But before we get into that discussion, let us give you an insight about the shady business CA was up to this whole time.

The shady business

Before one of the most talked about data breach in recent times took place, not many people knew what CA was and weren’t aware about the work they did. It is a private company that provides research services and analytics to its clients. Companies like CA usually operate behind closed doors, and at times rather openly. Their services are mostly used around the world during election campaigns. With all the information sources publically available in order to strategise campaigns and demographic sketches, such companies work to collect voter data. A company of Steve Banon – the former White House Chief Strategist – and Robert Mercer, CA was founded in 2013 and had allegedly participated in US election campaigns since 2014. How the whole fiasco shaped up is a rather interesting tale. Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge university lecturer built an app – thisisyourdigitallife – along with CA and with their support, he used it through his own company Global Science Research (GSR) to acquire voluntary information from numerous users with the help of a personality quiz. But that’s not it, for the whole situation gets murky after one finds out that the users were paid and told that their information will be utilised for academic reasons. The app collected Facebook data which, according to the latter, was supposed to be used for the improvement of app experience, instead of any other purpose. The app, according to Facebook, was downloaded by 270,000 people who also shared their personal data along with it. But the shadowy antics of CA, Kogan and Facebook had to be exposed one day and that day finally arrived when a Canadian, Christopher Wylie became the whistleblower in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. He was the former Research Director at CA who provided the Observer with documents revealing the clandestine workings behind the company.

How the scandal has affected users worldwide

This scandal shook the world, especially Americans; nevertheless, the issue is not just limited to US citizens. The revelations have left Facebook users from around the world worried about their privacy online, considering how several firms might be using their personal data for their own benefits. The data breach has highlighted the dark side of social media and is one of the most controversial to have surfaced in today’s times. It is, however, a scandal which has left many wondering what exactly can be done and how it is keeping world leaders on their toes, for they are the ones who need to protect their fellow citizens from the internet’s dark forces.

The exposé about this data breach was a warning for internet and social media users worldwide, as it wasn’t just CA that acquired user information from Facebook but there are numerous other companies who may have all the data easily available in the cyberspace. As per Wylie’s account to the Observer, the algorithm used by CA is rooted in the likes given away by profiles on their database, which leaves the user completely vulnerable, for the system can easily identify details of their life, such as their relationships, sexual orientation, susceptibility to drug abuse, their political views and a lot more. Companies like CA can build an individual’s entire character profile based completely on what they ‘like’ and ‘react’ to on Facebook.

The use of ‘likes’ has already been proven in a study published by an academic, Dr. Michal Kosinski in October 2017’s PNAS Early Edition, which states: “Governments, companies, and political parties use persuasive appeals to encourage people to eat healthier, purchase a particular product, or vote for a specific candidate.” The paper further states that “... people’s psychological characteristics can be accurately predicted from their digital footprints, such as their Facebook Likes or Tweets.”

Do we need more proof to wake up to this atrocious situation where a person’s life is no longer private?

World leaders vs. cybersecurity

Even though countries around the world have been discussing the impact of technology and telecommunications for the past two decades, the cyberspace has always been vulnerable to major virtual incidents, which have often led governments to develop newer policies and strategies to counter issues surrounding cybersecurity, as well as devise guidelines to utilise cyberspace for military and political purpose. However, the need of time is to now address the elephant in the room, for according to the UN Human Rights Council, a debate had once taken place on whether the model codified in the international humanitarian law applies both, offline and online. Hence, cybersecurity has been discussed on various international platforms including the G8 Summit, the UN General Assembly, World Economic Forum (WEF), London Cybersecurity Conference, Global Conference on Cyberspace in The Hague and the Commonwealth’s Cybersecurity Forum, as well as by regional organisations such as NATO, Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, OSCE and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. WEF’s annual meeting held in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year also propagated the commitment and passion displayed by world leaders to acknowledge cybersecurity as the issue that needs to be addressed and resolved. This meeting, however, took place almost a month before the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal surfaced, which means the risks surrounding cybersecurity must now be dealt with as a matter of extreme urgency; it is something that has kept world leaders on their toes and to worsen their the state of their woes, it was recently found out that even Twitter had sold data access to the researcher who worked for CA.

Keeping in mind the involvement of all these organisations and the countries that adhere to their rules and regulations, it isn’t a difficult feat to counter the dark forces in the cyberworld, and world leaders must arrive at a consensus to make the world and the cyberspace a safe spot for citizens, so that they can live their lives on their own terms and practice freedom without any fear.