13:46, March 23 288 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-23 13:46:05
We’re taking on Cambridge Analytica in a legal fight for data rights

The movement for data rights has hit a landmark moment. In early 2017, I was instructed by a number of individuals who were concerned about the way their data was being used. They feared their personal data had been compiled and amalgamated into profiles based some on their most personal beliefs – their political opinions. Those profiles were processed by the notorious Cambridge Analytica, and seemingly by its parent company, SCL. We have now filed a claim in the British courts on behalf of a US citizen, David Carroll, to seek full disclosure of the data held by Cambridge Analytica and SCL. This will be the first case against these companies and will shed further light on what they were doing.

Our clients are seeking to understand the extent of the data held about them without their knowledge or consent, and to know whether that data was subsequently manipulated, and if so, in what way and for what purpose. They also hope to discover the breadth of information needed to make sophisticated predictions about political beliefs – a revelation that will be of wide interest, not just to our clients.

The case will also determine something more fundamental: the boundaries of permissible use of personal political data. And in turn, our clients will seek to ensure that such sensitive personal information is in future better protected. While it is increasingly accepted in the digital age that individuals enter into a bargain with their data in using the internet, the true costs of this exchange are only now becoming clear.

In the context of revelations about what appears to be the untrammelled use of data in political campaigns, our clients’ case will set the first train of accountability in motion. This case – and the movement behind it – is about more than just holding companies like Cambridge Analytica and SCL to account. It seeks to demonstrate the importance of data rights, and how steps can be taken to control the use of our own information. For too long, those rights have been ignored in the name of innovation. . This is a critical time in ensuring that individuals have a say in how their online worlds are governed.

It is now apparent that some information is too precious, too personal, to be left without personal control. After the claim was issued the Observer, the New York Times and Channel 4 News ran stories that have shown that our clients’ concerns may be well placed.

The whistleblower Christopher Wiley has revealed that Cambridge Analytica retained huge data sets on individuals, including data alleged to have been harvested from Facebook. Cambridge Analytica’s own advertising claims that it possesses a unique set of 5,000 individual data points on each adult in America. That data was said to have been used to influence the US electorate through “psychographic” algorithms. Cambridge Analytica boasted that this algorithm had carried Donald Trump to victory.

The ultimate parent company of Cambridge Analytica, SCL, openly states that it has “conducted behavioural change programmes in over 60 countries”. It also claims to conduct “military influence campaigns” using “alternative narratives and credible perspectives”. The suggestion is that these companies could create a political consensus by influencing behaviour.

Algorithms and machine-learning software are the new “weapons” of political change. The internet is now full of algorithms that can analyse and predict human behaviour, even when information is incomplete. This has been achieved through the development of opaque software that, in the words of the Artificial Intelligence expert François Chollet, determines “which articles we read, who we keep in touch with, whose opinions we read, whose feedback we get”.

Those who control algorithms have great power. In particular, decisions on what is promoted to the top of a newsfeed can have tremendous influence. The feeds people are shown on social media sites are highly personal. What you see in your feed is algorithmically tailored to your identity and your interaction history with the site. This is a potent tool for targeting individuals, exemplified by the revelations concerning Cambridge Analytica.

The idea that these platforms could evolve to affect politics goes against the idea of “apolitical” technology cherished by those in Silicon Valley. Indeed, it is only belatedly, and after the 2016 US presidential election, that the tech giants have revealed the extent of the manipulation of their use. Facebook initially labelled it “crazy” that its platform could have any influence on the election. It eventually confirmed that it was able to identify 80,000 posts on its platform that it believes were linked to Russia, which were viewed by up to 126 million people during the campaign.

The recent revelations about the extent to which Facebook data was seemingly abused by private companies has served to aggravate these concerns. The internet giants have been too slow to react when data breaches have been brought to their attention. The latest events should at least be an awakening for these companies to put data rights at the forefront of their platforms.

While regulatory and legislative developments such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) may enhance individual protection over data, they represent an evolution in personal rights rather than a revolution. The revolution will come only when people can access and take control over their data and assert their rights to privacy, as our clients have done in their case against Cambridge Analytica and SCL.

As our lives increasingly translate into electronic media and data, the question of who controls our data and what rights we have over it is not just for regulators or to be to technology companies. It is becoming as fundamental to us as any other human right.

Ravi Naik is a solicitor and partner at Irvine Thanvi Natas Solicitors, where he heads the public law department

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