Politicians follow in Facebook’s footsteps on mass data collection

Nearly 90 million Facebook users may have had their online information collected by Cambridge Analytica | Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON — The last three weeks have revealed how reliant political campaigns have become on people’s data.

Almost 90 million Facebook users from Los Angeles to London may have had their online information illegally collected by Cambridge Analytica as part of its work for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Mark Zuckerberg, the social networking giant’s chief executive, will testify to U.S. lawmakers this week over claims that the tech giant played fast and loose in its protection of people’s online privacy. Both companies deny any wrongdoing.

It’s legitimate to point the finger at the world’s largest social network and a data analytics firm with somewhat shady political connections. But there’s one sizeable piece of the puzzle that’s missing from the world’s newfound fixation on digital privacy: voters themselves.

In the nonstop global election cycle of the last 18 months, people across Europe, the United States and elsewhere have readily handed over their online information to campaigns with little thought about what such data would be used for. That includes willingly participating in online surveys, sharing social media usernames and downloading smartphone apps to offer political movements almost unprecedented insight into — and access to — their thoughts and voting intentions.

Do people using such websites really understand that they are, in fact, data-gathering strategies by the country’s leading political parties?

Call it the app-ification of the political world.

Just as Facebook, YouTube and other popular digital services offered people apparently “free” goodies in return for their personal information, lawmakers have realized that they too can use similar smartphone-friendly tactics to (legitimately) gather data on potential voters.

That’s a worrying trend. Privacy campaigners — and, increasingly, the general public — have raised hackles about how much data many of the world’s largest tech companies now hold on all of our digital habits.

But what happens when political campaigns start following suit? We’re now at a stage where politicians are building on existing data collection techniques like voter registration and consumer marketing databases to add proprietary digital warehouses of citizens’ online information — data that people freely hand over by completing a light-hearted online quiz or downloading the latest smartphone app without checking how that information will be used.

It’s all about the data

You don’t have to look far for examples of these new politicized data-gathering techniques. And many of them have gone hand-in-hand with the most-recent U.S. presidential election and Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, both in 2016 — campaigns that, not surprisingly, also lie at the center of the recent Facebook data scandal.

A month before the U.K. went to the Brexit polls, for instance, the Vote Leave campaign unveiled an offer that seemed too good to be true. It created a website that promised to pay people a cool £50 million (allegedly, the daily amount sent by Britain to the EU — the true figure, minus the country’s rebate, is less than £40 million) if they could guess…

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