Claims that Cambridge Analytica employed clandestine methods to harvest the data of 50 million Facebook users have finally “let the genie out of the bottle” over social media platforms’ data practices and could ultimately lead consumers to think twice about sharing their data.
That is the verdict of many working in the data-driven marketing industry following weekend reports which accuse Cambridge Analytica of fraudulently obtaining Facebook user data and then using it to run election ads during both Brexit and the US presidential elections. Both companies deny any wrongdoing.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is already investigating the use of data analytics in political campaigning in the UK, following claims that Cambridge Analytica influenced the Brexit vote.
In a statement released following the latest claims, the ICO said: “We are continuing to invoke all of our powers and are pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry. Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously.”
The use of psychographic targeting is nothing new, however, and many in the data industry – in private at least – believe the issue shows the value of the technique, although they also recognise that transparency is paramount. Cambridge Analytica also has a commercial data-driven marketing operation; its client list is shrouded in secrecy.
One industry insider said: “What this issue highlights more than ever is that people are being hoodwinked into sharing their data. GDPR should put an end to this sort of practice, although many companies’ T&Cs are so complicated that it makes it very difficult for the average consumer to know what they are signing up for. Brands must be transparent or they will lose the trust of their customers.”
John Wallinger, managing director of the Marketing Planning Practice, said: “If this story proves to be true I think people are going to think twice about sharing their data. It also shows a massive mis-use of gathering and use of data.”
Another industry source added: “It lets the genie out of the bottle about people giving their data away for free – and may result in people using free platforms like Facebook differently. I think in time they’ll understand how the value exchange with social media platforms isn’t in their favour and they’ll shy away from them.”
Jason Cromack, co-founder of personal data governance and analytics business MyLife Digital, agrees. He said: “My view is that behaviour like this is only going to lead to a broader understanding of the data harvesting and sharing practices of the social platforms. If Cambridge Analytica are holding the data on all these data subjects which hasn’t been consented to they should be informing them.
“If a company holds my personal data with all the rich attributes linked to it, I’d want to give permission for them to hold it or another organisation to share it with them. Informed insight from informed consent.”
But Cromack believes that, ultimately there could be an upside, adding that increased consumer understanding will lead to “better quality data and deeper trust between organisations and customers if they fully understand how it is being used”. However, he concedes that “we have a long way to go to get to this point”.
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