Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
In recent elections across the globe, fear and prejudice have produced major wins for ethnic nationalism. White supremacy fueled the rise of Donald Trump, xenophobia did the same for Brexit and ethnic tension aided President Kenyatta in Kenya. But there is another common thread in these elections.
The victors in all these campaigns reportedly hired the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica to help them win tight races. CA collects voter data without asking for their permission, and its influence remains largely unchecked. It's dangerous to let this keep happening — what we need is stronger oversight to limit CA and protect the rights of voters.
In the words of professor Jonathan Albright, CA is a focal point in the right's "propaganda machine." First, it played a key role in Brexit. The United Kingdom's weak electoral laws allowed CA to advertise as a private data firm, but its technology was born out of the British and American defense community. CA amassed voter profiles without necessarily having permission.
For example, The Guardian reported that CA hired a scientist to harvest data by paying people on Facebook to take a personality quiz "which also allowed not just their own Facebook profiles to be harvested, but also those of their friends." They then used that data to find emotional triggers for each individual. So, for example, someone high in neuroticism would be targeted with news about immigrants taking over the country. In this way, they immorally collected private data and then manipulated voters' personalities for a racist agenda.
The connection to the 2016 presidential election may be even more disturbing. CA former vice president was former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who "had holdings in Cambridge Analytica worth between $1 million and $5 million as recently as April of this year," according to Bloomberg. The role of CA in both Brexit and the Trump campaign was anything but coincidental. Bannon used its tools to influence both votes in ways that cross the line of ethical data use.
The impact of CA on these votes is not quantifiable, but we can be sure their methods and goals are alarming. So much so that The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is looking at CA as part of its investigations into Russian interference in the election. There is even speculation the campaign's data operation will point directly to collusion with Russia.
CA will continue to offer its services wherever the price is right, no matter the danger to the public. The 2017 election in Kenya was highly contested. Uhuru Kenyatta, a member of the long-ruling Kikuyu ethnic group, reportedly hired CA to help his campaign. Then, 10 days before the vote, the official in charge of overseeing the election was found dead in a forest. After the election, the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified the results, citing "irregularities and illegalities." This lead to a revote that ultimately kept Kenyatta in power. CA's exact role in the campaign remains a subject of debate.
But what's more troublesome than the secrecy surrounding CA's involvement is the power they could now wield. Kenya's post-colonial history is rife with violent ethnic conflict. After the 2007 election, more than 1,000 people were killed and the country almost broke out in civil war. According to Privacy International, CA's "personal data on millions of Kenyan citizens is highly problematic, especially since it is unclear how such data will be stored and who will have access to it." In a country with one ethnic group's political party in power and no data protection laws, CA's data could put lives in jeopardy. If the ruling party sought to persecute ethnic minorities or political opponents, they now probably have extensive personal information on their targets.
From America to Britain to Kenya and beyond, CA is amassing data and influencing elections. Even Ted Cruz, who claims to prioritize individual privacy, hypocritically hired CA for his presidential bid. It is true most major candidates have some kind of data analytics strategy, but the shady work of CA stands out for its methodology, secrecy and trend of supporting ethnic nationalist candidates.
It may be tempting to dismiss stories about CA as some Luddite conspiracy theory, but the human rights violations here cannot be ignored. A private company now has unprecedented access to voters' thoughts. CA allows candidates to surveil voters and manipulate their fears. If we don't take serious steps to oversee and limit their actions, we jeopardize the democracies of the world.
Jack Lewis is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.