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Don’t Piss Down My Back and Tell Me It’s Raining

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which, like a cancerous tumor, has now metastasized and spread to Twitter), there’s been a good deal of conversation online about user data — who owns it, where and when it can be sold, and how it should be protected.

Alongside the quiet chorus of voices calling for greater consumer data protection laws in the United States (like those enshrined in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect later this month), there have been calls for revenue-sharing schemes to allow users of social media sites to share in the profits from the sale of their private data. If we’re the product being sold, proponents argue, then we should be entitled to a cut of the proceeds of the sale or use of our data.

This all sounds just dandy, but as Engadget’s Edgar Alvarez notes in his post on the topic of data royalties, such proposals are almost hilarious in their unlikelihood.

For one, there’s the not-inconsequential matter of how we would go about tracking how, where, and when our personal data is being stored, accessed, or sold. There’s the blockchain, of course — but we’ll come back to this in a moment.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that revenue-sharing schemes like those being proposed would cut into social media sites’ own profits. For Twitter, which finally made a profit in Q4 2017 after 12 years in business, the introduction of revenue-sharing schemes is about as likely as Twitter banning Donald Trump.

Facebook doesn’t have the best track record with revenue-sharing schemes, either. After introducing a revenue-sharing scheme for mid-roll ad breaks in live and on-demand videos in April 2017, Facebook was accused of paying just pennies on the dollar for even wildly popular videos. One video publisher reportedly earned just $500 in royalty payments for a video that attracted more than 20 million unique views, highlighting the futility of these schemes as potential revenue streams (for creators, that is — you can bet Facebook is making out just fine).

Remember earlier, when I said we’d come back to the blockchain as a means of verifying when, where, and how our personal data is accessed? Well, this is apparently one of the many goals of the Digital Asset Trade Association, or DATA.

From the press release announcing the launch of DATA:

Several leading companies in the crypto/blockchain ecosystem have come together to establish the Digital Asset Trade Association (DATA), a global, non-profit organization focused on lobbying behalf of the industry within all levels of governments, corporations, and communities.

DATA wants to use blockchain technology — the kind of technology made by the privately owned member companies that comprise DATA — to track how our personal data is used online.

It’s an ambitious plan, but it’s not technically impossible. Some organizations are already using blockchain technology to tackle serious social problems in genuinely innovative ways that could have interesting implications for the tracking of how personal data is used online. Officials in Austin, Texas, are experimenting with blockchain tech focusing on decentralized identity verification to provide services to the city’s homeless population more efficiently, while Blockchain for Change is working on a similar program in New York City through which homeless people can access financial and government services by using a blockchain-based app.

Ordinarily, the foundation of a nonprofit trade organization ostensibly focused on lobbying for crytocurrency concerns wouldn’t be that big a deal, or even particularly newsworthy. Something that is a big deal, however, is the fact that one of DATA’s cofounders is Brittany Kaiser.

Until very recently, Kaiser was a director at Cambridge Analytica. A graduate of Middlesex College in London, Kaiser worked on Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign in 2007. It was her work on Obama’s campaign that caught the eye of Alexander Nix, the disgraced former chief executive of SCL Group, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company. Kaiser worked for Cambridge Analytica for more than four years, and only left the organization in March 2018 after the Facebook data harvesting scandal had broken.

Kaiser, who now describes herself as a whistleblower, is spearheading a new campaign — to pressure Facebook into overhauling its data privacy policies and give control over user data back to the users. The Change.org campaign, which had more than 155,000 signatures of its 200,000 signature goal as of the time of this writing, even has its own hashtag — #ownyourdata — which sounds more like a slogan for T-Mobile than a call to arms.

Are these companies ripping us all off? If so, does this have to continue this way? I believe that if we act together, we can change the business model to the benefit of people globally. Sign up and share the #OwnYourData petition now, and let’s take back our rights.

Kaiser’s ethically questionable professional background aside, she’s right. We should be demanding control over how, where, and when our personal data is used or accessed. We should be demanding more accountability and transparency from monolithic technology companies like Facebook. We should be demanding that social media platforms act in good faith to not only protect our most sensitive data, but use it responsibly.

The problem with Kaiser’s new crusade is that, as an “activist,” Kaiser isn’t even remotely credible.

I’m sure that, on some level, Kaiser is genuinely outraged by how Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have acted with naked contempt for users’ rights and shrugged off any notion of personal responsibility. However, Kaiser seemed just fine with Cambridge Analytica’s activities until it became apparent that the company’s PR disaster wasn’t going to blow over any time soon. It’s not as if Kaiser was an intern. A lowly cog in the Cambridge Analytica machine may not have been privy to proprietary company secrets — but as Director of Campaign Development for both Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group, Kaiser would.

If you’re still not convinced, it’s right there in Kaiser’s LinkedIn profile:

Cambridge Analytica’s proprietary Behavioral Microtargeting uses our dataset (up to 5,000 data points on over 240 million Americans) to grow your audience, customers and voter base. I help commercial and political clients use data insights to solve problems and achieve campaign goals.

When somebody who personally benefited from the misappropriation and manipulation of the personal data of millions of people starts talking about how “we’re” being ripped off and how we need to take back “our” rights, it’s a little fucking rich for my tastes.

The likelihood of Facebook not only changing its global data privacy policies in light of a Change.org petition, but willingly relinquishing ownership of its most valuable asset — user data — is about as likely as Mark Zuckerberg quitting Facebook to become a diesel mechanic. What’s much more likely is that Kaiser’s Bueno Capital and the other members of DATA will doubtlessly do very well by positioning themselves as knowledgeable experts who can “solve” the current data crisis — for a six-figure consulting fee and maybe some stock options, of course.

I’m not saying Facebook shouldn’t change its data policies — only that it won’t. I am saying that we should all be wary of self-styled “whistleblowers” coming forward with grim tidings of evil corporations stealing our personal data — especially if those whistleblowers happily helped said corporations steal our data in the first place.