What the life and death of Cambridge Analytica tells us about politics — and ourselves

Cambridge Analytica’s now former office in London. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

The demise of Cambridge Analytica this week may bring a fleeting sense of relief to those worried about personal data being used to shape how they vote, or even the outcome of entire elections. But the larger lesson of the scandal that brought down one of President Trump’s campaign vendors is that politics and data are now inextricably linked — with or without Cambridge Analytica in the picture.

Cambridge Analytica, as it made clear in its farewell news release on Wednesday, was part of a much broader development in politics — a world increasingly fueled by vast troves of personal data that billions of Internet users emit every day. The company said it was being unfairly singled out for doing things that are “widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas.”

In a world with few laws governing how data is used, some of the ashes of Cambridge Analytica already are being resurrected in a new firm, with some of the same key people, in a British company, Emerdata.

Even without Cambridge Analytica or Emerdata, politicians now have the tools to target us each individually — based on data suggesting our race, religion, income, shopping habits, sexual orientation, medical concerns, personality traits, current location, past locations, pet preference or Zodiac sign if they’d like. The implosion of Cambridge Analytica has made clear how politics often works in our increasingly digital world.

The trove of documents shared publicly by the company’s former research director, Christopher Wylie, illustrates that granular personal data on each of us can be used to create precise messages to any individual voter, then delivered to us through the online ecosystem over Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter and other free services. Such tactics have long been standard in commerce — ever noticed how ads for those nice hiking boots keep following you around the Web? — but all these tactics of manipulation are equally available to those working in largely unregulated political realms too.

Politicians hired Cambridge Analytica to use this technology to shape events in many countries across the world. That includes places, like Kenya and Nigeria, where democracy is new and fragile, and places like Britain and the United States, where there is less of an expectation of voter manipulation.

Though there has long been skepticism about whether Cambridge Analytica was as effective as it claimed, experts expect this technology to only improve, especially as artificial intelligence and virtual reality steadily grow more powerful. The era of campaign season “deep fakes” — imagine a convincing but phony clip of a politician doing something appalling — is not far off.

Even as Cambridge Analytica announced bankruptcy, regulators around the world pledged they would continue investigating the company. In the United Kingdom, the country’s top data-protection authority, the Information Commissioner’s Office, said in a statement it would “pursue individuals and directors, as appropriate and necessary even where companies may no longer be operating.”

Yet longtime watchers of these issues take little comfort in Cambridge Analytica’s decision to declare bankruptcy. Jonathan Albright, a social media analyst who has been studying the company for nearly two years, saw it as little more than a legal maneuver.

“Cambridge Analytica’s business entity…

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