The Great Hack: are data scientists becoming the new bond villains?

“People don’t want to admit that propaganda works, because to admit it means confirming our own susceptibilities,” said Chris Wiley, data scientist, and former employee at Cambridge Analytica. The Netflix show the Great Hack is out, it lacks car chases, and there is a complete absence of fight scenes, but a case could be made to suggest it did involve a heist, and maybe something a good deal more serious than the type we normally see in the movies, not so much like the Italian Job, or even ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,’ because, in the Great Hack, it was data that may have been stolen, and democracy was the possible victim.

Yet, as The Great Hack demonstrated, at first, no one seemed to think anything untoward was being done. When Cambridge Analytica helped Ted Cruz come second to Trump in the nomination of the Republican representative for the office of President of the United States, they were not shy in trying to tell the world. Newspapers led with the story, the Cambridge Analytica CEO, Andrew Nicks, looked like a proud man, as he appeared on Fox TV. “We could see the path to becoming a one billion-dollar company,” said one Cambridge Analytica insider.

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It seems like it was exciting times, the company was making a difference with its use of data, and the world was finding out about it. If data scientists are like the rock stars of the digital economy, Cambridge Analytica must have felt it had the opportunity to be a kind of data Elvis and data Beatles, rolled into one.

When asked “if he thought he had skewed democracy,” Nicks looked almost dumbfounded: “By providing campaign services for a candidate who had been fairly nominated as a republican representative for the United States! How is that possible?”

Maybe to start at the beginning of this story, we need to go back to when Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems said privacy is a “red herring… you have zero privacy anyway… Get over it.”  That was in 1999. 12-years later, Mark Zuckerberg said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people — and that social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

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No doubt he rued the day when he uttered those words, but Zuckerberg was simply reflecting what was emerging as the received wisdom in tech circles at that time, we were entering the era of complete openness, meaning no more secrets. It also meant, of course, the end of privacy.

Even today, the debate rambles on; if you don’t have anything to hide, why be afraid of an open society? Or so suggests many privacy cynics.

Those same people may still feel puzzled over the Cambridge Analytica furore; people are responsible for their own actions, goes their narrative. As one Cambridge Analytica spokesmen said: “Cambridge Analytica is no Bond villain.”

Maybe, if the data had been used to persuade the electorate to support a narrative that chimed with the idealism of the so-called liberal popular press, no one would have much cared.

It is just that such an argument misses the point. It misses the whole branch of behavioural science, of studies of groupthink, group polarisation — where a gathering of people can exaggerate the views of the average members of that group, turning a collection of moderates into a baying mob of hardliners, and of how the internet, via its filter bubble, can exaggerate the dangers of groupthink like no medium has been able to do in history.

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Brittany Kaiser, a former big hitter at Analytica turned whistle-blower and a central character in the Great Hack, seemed to be having second thoughts. “Was Cambridge Analytica in contravention of human rights? “No…but I am starting to question things the more I hear,” she said.

Or, as Guardian journalist, Carole Cadwalladr said: “Our personal data is out there being used against us in ways we don’t understand.”

She asked: “Is it possible to ever have a free election again?” And speaking as if to the tech titans, the men and women who sit at the top of the tech giants, she asked: “Do you want to be remembered as the handmaidens to authoritarianism… as we play with our phones as darkness falls?”

Data science may seem like the enemy in the Great Hack, but data science can help us treat the ill, find new medicines, reduce waste, and one day find a cure for cancer.

Whether data scientists were the Bond villains of the Great Hack, it is clear that and as the fourth industrial revolution unwinds, ethical use of technology, from protecting our privacy to ensuring automation frees up the labour force rather than impoverishes it, creating privacy, ethics, and indeed security by design is essential.

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Al Capone was finally brought down by tax evasion. Cambridge Analytica was brought down in part because it said it had deleted the data it has acquired from Facebook when in fact it hadn’t, and because like in the best spy novels, Nicks was caught out by a hidden camera, expressing views and outlining tactics that were at stark odds with what the company had been saying in public.

Or as Kaiser said: “I didn’t think that while we are counting votes on our data screen. Some of those votes were made by people who had seen fake news stored paid by Russian on their news page.”

Fake news, indeed, from Russia with Love.

If data scientists want to be the heroes of the fourth industrial revolution, they must learn the lessons of Cambridge Analytica, privacy is a human right, and ethics a must, and privacy must run though our data, like the word Brighton, in a stick of Brighton rock.

See also: How to embark on a data science career

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Michael Baxter

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