…The darker side of connecting in the digital age
By Dr Admire Mare
LIKE most people across the globe, Namibians are still coming to terms with the recent revelations that Facebook shared user data with a number of third parties including Cambridge Analytica.
Although the data which was shared belonged mostly to Americans, the scandal has unearthed a can of worms especially with regards to the business model underpinning global social media companies.
The revelations have spawned a number of court cases, cyber-movements (like the #deletefacebookand #regulatefacebookmovements) apologies, legislative manoeuvresand policy reflections.
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of the social media giant, has apologized for the “breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it”.
So why should people in Namibia and indeed the rest of the continent worry about this latest scandal?
Most Namibians rely on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for sharing information about their private and public lives with their friends, relatives and business partners.
Recent statistics from internetworldstats indicates that there are over 570 000 Facebook subscribers in Namibia representing 22 percent penetration rate.
Besides social networking, research also suggests that some of these subscribers use social media for economic, and political purposes.
Because of the foregoing reasons, it is arguable that Namibians [like the rest of the world] have a reason to worry because if data can easily be traded to the highest bidder then our information cannot be expected to be safe in the hands of private companies.
As Zuckerberg rightfully puts it, the general public shares information on social media platforms expecting the platform owners to protect it from abuse and misuse.
However, the disclosures that Cambridge Analytica conducted behavioural modeling and psychographic profiling (creating personality profiles by gauging motives, interests, attitudes, beliefs, values, etc) based on data it collected, to successfully (allegedly) target Americans prior to the recent presidential election, raises pertinent questions for consideration here.
The details came to light after a whistleblower (similar to Edward Snowden) who used to work for Cambridge Analtyica revealed that the firm harvested the data of over 50 million Facebook users and used the data to help the Trump campaign target advertisements on Facebook.
It suggests that political consultancy firms in Namibia can be tempted to use these tricks to manipulate public opinion and engage in subtle micro-targeting of voters thereby creating a subverted form of democracy.
At face value, users have always known that Facebook collects all kinds of social data about its users, like their relationship status, place of work, colleagues, last time they visited their parents, songs they like listening to, as well as other kinds of information such as device data, websites visited from the platform and so forth.
What was not clear to the general public before the latest scandal was the business model behind this massive big data collection exercise by global social media companies.
Data that is collected is used to draw up the profile of users — a detailed picture of the persona that emerges by piecing together known activity and aptitude and generating predictions about possible proclivities and predispositions.
At the end of the day, social media companies are able to come up with user traits and attributes based on their algorithms and machine learning estimations.
These users are then clustered into hyper segments with similar attributes for micro-targeting ads. Social media companies use this kind of information to predict with a fair amount of accuracy our political affiliation and sexual orientation, using algorithmic modelling to nudge us to buy something we are most likely to.
Hyper-segmentation based on social media profiling can also be used to create a consumer base for political messaging.
Although, the #deletefacebook movement has failed to gain traction in most African countries largely due to the fact that it was “them” (Americans) and not “us” (Namibians and Africans) whose data was shared with Cambridge Analytica, there is urgent need to begin serious conversations about data privacy, rights and responsibilities of global social media companies and regulation of customer data.
The debate has to focus on the plausibility of self-regulation, co-regulation and statutory regulation of social media companies.
In making this argument, I am well aware that regulation of social media companies may violate internet freedom and freedom of expression.
As net importers of social media products and services, African countries find themselves constrained on how to intervene in the legislative and policy debates currently happening in the global North.
Like South Africa, Namibia has been at the forefront of formulating the Data Protection Act which provides the necessary and proportionate mechanisms for dealing with violations of customer data, whistle blowers, big data and analytics and appointment of a Data Protection Officer.
Data protection laws are also invaluable because they regulate the way information is handled by internet access and service providers and also give legal rights to people who have information stored about them.
It contains a set of principles that organizations, government and businesses have to adhere to in order to keep data accurate, safe, secure and lawful.
Over and above, these legislative and policy interventions there is also need for data justice movements in Namibia similar to the Windhoek declaration which gave birth to regional CSOs like Misa.
In the wake of fake news and data privacy breaches, digital literacy at the individual level is also important. As users of social media, Namibians must be wary of the kinds of information they post online.
This is very important because most of us rarely read thoroughly the acceptable use policies which are in fine print. We are quick to press ‘accept’, ‘submit’, ‘post’ and ‘log in’ without reflecting on the implications of our choices.
Whilst connection has many positive attributes, the Facebook privacy fiasco has shown us the unintended negative side. We must guard jealously our data and information.
Dr. Admire Mare is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015