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  • Writer's pictureNick Turner

Your data: a trillion dollar dilemma...

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

The personal data economy and why we still have so much to learn

"Data is the new oil", or so we are told with increasing monotony. My own recent experience in helping to launch and position a new data analytics company has been a fascinating and highly illuminating experience. On the one hand, there is the quite startling and powerful potential to generate insights and trillions of dollars in new value from data*. On the other, it would appear that society (and business in particular) is still in its collective infancy in its ability to understand and control the ethics and morality of gathering and manipulating often the most personal of information.

As part of my own due diligence and research into this fascinating topic, I watched The Great Hack, Netflix's inflammatory documentary exposé of the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA) in shaping events around Trump's 2016 US Presidential election victory and the Leave.EU Brexit campaign. These are possibly two of the most politically controversial events of our times. Many of you reading this will have watched the film, if you haven't, do. It is a real eye-opener and highly relevant to all of us, both professionally and personally.

After watching Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer's work, the husband-and-wife team who made The Great Hack, I was left disturbed, shocked, perhaps even a little angry. A number of thoughts still rattle around my brain:

1. At one level, Cambridge Analytica were only trying to do what marketers have being doing for decades: persuading a targeted audience to change their behaviour in a certain way, whether buying soap brand X or voting for party Y. However, at another level, what they were doing was far more sophisticated and in my view, more sinister.

2. In Alexander Nix's (CEO of Cambridge Analytica) own words, the "Ad Men of old" were being replaced by the "Math Men" of today. They used opaque (at best) and devious (at worst) methods, to procure up to 5000 data points on millions of individuals without their explicit consent and in most cases, any awareness at all.

3. It remains unclear if Facebook will ever be capable of either admitting or indeed understanding their own culpability in providing the platform for Cambridge Analytica (and their ilk) to ply their trade. Should Facebook ever be trusted? Mark Zuckerberg obviously thinks so. As I type, he is currently testifying in front of Congress to secure support for the launch of his global digital currency Libra.

4. Perhaps most disturbing of all, The Great Hack highlighted that once individuals were identified and profiled ("the persuadables") they were then bombarded by highly personalised, in many cases fake, news items and information to cajole them to think and see the world in a particular way. This blatant manipulation seems just plain wrong at so many levels.

5. Cambridge Analytica were relentless, ruthless even, in perfecting their trade. Over a number of years they "supported" numerous political campaigns around the world, treating them as practice runs to fine tune their targeting and influencing techniques. Finally in 2016, they felt ready to unleash their capabilities on major western markets; the US and the UK. As self-proclaimed whistle-blower and former CA employee, Chris Wylie, observed about the company's work on the Trump campaign, "it was a grossly unethical experiment because you’re playing with the psychology of an entire country without their consent or awareness".

6. Despite recent legislation, including GDPR in Europe, regulation and regulators are a long way behind "big tech" in getting to grips with managing issues of data capture, manipulation, value extraction and perhaps most importantly, ownership.

7. While Cambridge Analytica no longer exists as a company, of course the technology and the methodologies do. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The phrase "weapons-grade communications tactics" is used in the film to describe CA's approach - implying that the IP is or should be restricted by the UK government from being exported.

A large part of the film goes on to follow the somewhat surreal activities of another former CA employee, Brittany Kaiser. She positions herself as the main protagonist in unravelling the role of Cambridge Analytica in manipulating the personal data of millions of Americans.

I found myself asking; why is she doing this? Fear? Guilt? A desire to exonerate herself? She then proceeds to rush around the world, oscillating from "hiding" in remote locations, to testifying to a myriad of authorities, desperate to distance herself from her role as a key executive who secured and managed lucrative contracts for CA. All the while, she protests about the stress and pressure she is experiencing, yet one can't but help but feel she is secretly enjoying all the attention, as she constantly checks her smart phone for the latest tit-bit of news.

What is Brittany up to now? Good question. She claims to be the founding partner of DATA (Digital Asset Trade Association), a non-profit focused on "sensible digital asset regulation". Their website however (somewhat suspiciously?), has expired. She is also championing an online campaign (HashTag OwnYourData) which seeks to challenge Facebook's rules and give us (the little people!) control back over our own data. No one said she wasn't smart.

So might this be the answer? Should we campaign to own our own data? Is ownership a fundamental human right (as DATA claim)? Should we be able to decide freely how our data is used (and how it is not)? Should we actually get paid for the value our data generates, rather than all the economic (and political) value accreting to big tech?

There certainly seems to be no lack of new entrants or offerings into the so called personal data economy. From government backed initiatives, including the EU's DECODE, to non-profits, such as Tim Berners-Lee's ODI, which partners with companies and governments to build an open, trustworthy data ecosystem, to numerous commercial services that attempt to allow individuals to "take back control" of their own data. (Now where I have I heard that phrase before?)

At the end, the film challenges us to question how we want a data-driven society to operate. Do we want to have "free and fair" elections ever again? Should trillion dollar companies be built on the back of our personal data? Are we happy to be manipulated, our opinions and behaviours covertly shaped by others? Or do we want, indeed can we be bothered, to take back control?

*McKinsey estimate that the personalisation of data at scale has the potential to create between $1.7 trillion to $3 trillion in new value.

Suggested further reading:

Can we take back control of our own data, March 2019, SCENARIO Magazine

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