Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, Surveillance Capitalism and the Survival of Democracy

-- By MirelisValle - May 2022

In March 2018, Cambridge Analytica, a data and political consulting firm, was exposed in its dealings with the Donald Trump campaign for employing user data, harvested from Facebook as well as from data brokerage companies that collect and sell user data, to build psychological profiles of potential voters across the United States. These profiles were created to target each voter with political propaganda that was tailor made for them. The public outcry centered primarily on how the data appeared to have been improperly obtained from Facebook. But the real scandal was how this data was ultimately used to manipulate voters without their knowledge or consent.(1).

When Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, pitched his idea of collecting user data of potential U.S. voters to target them with political propaganda based on their psychological profile, conservative political donor and data scientist Robert Mercer was dazzled. Not only did he become a member of Cambridge Analytica’s board of directors, along with Stephen Bannon, but also one of the company’s top investors. Mercer saw in Cambridge Analytica the perfect opportunity to use data science to advance his conservative political views in the U.S. Indeed, when Trump turned out to be the Republican Party’s top contender, Mercer put Cambridge Analytica and his wealth at the disposal of the Trump campaign.HarperCollins? .">(2).

Cambridge Analytica’s work for the Trump campaign was aimed at influencing voter behavior. To achieve its purpose, the company amassed enormous amounts of user data of potential voters in the U.S. obtained from their Facebook activity -- likes, profile information, and responses to personality quizzes. It then matched this information with data about these potential voters purchased from outside vendors such as Experian, who collects consumer data from its users to provide them with “free” credit scores but sells their data to third parties for profit. By matching the information obtained from these two sources and then assigning each potential voter an “OCEAN” score, Cambridge Analytica was able to determine the personality of an estimated 240 million potential voters in the U.S., and could accurately predict, among other things, their gender, race, how likely each of them was to vote, whether they belonged to a particular political party, if they were more concerned about environmental policy or gun rights, and whether they were more prompt to act out of fear or not. This process, which was known as ‘psychographing’, allowed Cambridge Analytica’s in-house psychologists to determine what motivated those potential voters to act. The Trump campaign then used this information to bombard the social media feeds of these millions of potential U.S. voters with political propaganda that had been designed to trigger specific emotions, interests, and fears, based on their particular personality type, in order to get them to act in a certain way: either to vote for Trump or deter them from voting for Hilary Clinton. The most troublesome part is that the entire affair was surreptitious and performed without the potential voters’ knowledge or consent.HarperCollins? .">(3).

Cambridge Analytica’s entire business model and the Trump campaign strategy for the 2016 election was enabled by the phenomenon known as ‘surveillance capitalism.’ This parasitic and pervasive economic system monitors and “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data” that is then sold to companies for profit.PublicAffairs? .">(4). Under this authoritarian regime, enterprises monitor and record our every move –web searches, social network likes and friends, credit card purchases, texts messages, photos saved in the cloud, purchased books, our heart rate while reading about certain ideas, and our exact location at all times, just to name a few— with the ultimate goal of controlling us through behavioral change. Individuals are lured into these extractive operations through “free” online services that offer convenience and efficiency, and often disguise their surveillance efforts. The personal experiences shared with these “free” online services are then recorded and analyzed as the means to a business’ or even the government’s ends. Humans are not exactly the ultimate customer in this economic system. Rather, they are the producers of the data that is then used to modify their future behavior to satisfy market trends.(5).

People relinquish their right to privacy on a daily basis in exchange for the convenience that smartphones and other digital devices provide. As the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal shows, surveillance capitalism is not only capable of influencing consumer habits, but also of determining who becomes the President of the United States. It aims at satisfying market demand, at the expense of nullifying our humanity and individual autonomy which are the very principles that make democratic society possible. At its core, surveillance capitalism is a parasitic authoritarian regime that consumes humanity in order to manipulate it. As such, it is antithetical to freedom and democracy. Since younger generations in the United States have not experienced tyrannic and despotic governments, it is possible that they take these principles for granted. But freedom and democracy are what make the United States remarkable, even today. Protecting our popular sovereignty will require a rethinking of our relationship with technology, a reformulation of the current economic system, and a reclaiming of privacy rights. It may be difficult and exhausting, but protecting our freedom and democracy is worth the inconvenience.(6).



1 : A.H. Ünver, Politics of Digital Surveillance, National Security and Privacy, Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, p. 2 (2018).

2 : Kaiser, Brittany. Targeted (pp. 79-80). HarperCollins? .

3 : Kaiser, Brittany. Targeted (pp. 83-84,100-102). HarperCollins? .

4 : Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (p. 7-8). PublicAffairs? .

5 : Id. at 10.See also Snowden, Edward. Permanent Record (p. 5). Henry Holt and Co.

6 : Id. at 10.See also Snowden, Edward. Permanent Record (p. 6-7). Henry Holt and Co.


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r3 - 11 May 2022 - 22:50:28 - MirelisValle
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