The Dark Side of the Moon

Volume 18 Letter 3

Mary Shelley’s classic story of Victor Frankenstein should now be a “must read” for any firm that collects data. The story of Frankenstein follows a young, idealistic, scientist who sets out to create a life form immune to disease. Using chemistry, electricity and the ethically questionable acquisition of a few ill gotten body parts, Victor Frankenstein brings his monster to life only to have it turn on him and destroy all that he loves.

The unfolding data scandal at Cambridge Analytica that involves the illicit use of Facebook data has many parallels. In case you missed it, data scientists used technology, computer science and few million pieces of personal data to hoodwink social media users in an alleged scheme to skew elections and topple governments. In this tale, some young idealists crossed more than a few ethical lines targeting unsuspecting voters in an attempt to sway the social narrative of today’s online culture.

Like the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, the creation of these social media technologies is just the beginning of the nightmare. We are all now aware of how Facebook was used by a Cambridge scientist to dupe approximately 290,000 Facebook users into providing not only their own information but that of all their Facebook “friends” through a dummy survey. This gave them access to the information of over 50 million Facebook users. Not only that but these unscrupulous scientists then used that data to manipulate political opinions by posting videos and pictures to both the original marks and their unsuspecting friends. By monitoring who ‘Liked’ any given video, photo, or article scientists could cross reference with other online activity to verify views on a variety of subjects. In this way they were able to build a street level map of voting preferences across the targeted country and then set out to change the narrative by engaging each group with specific messages that would resonate with them. As the Cambridge Analytica whistle blower so eloquently stated, ‘once we knew your preferences what we did next was akin to whispering in your ear’.

The Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal has opened a window into the world of how customer data is being used to “bend” opinions. As the internet plays an ever more important role in today’s decision making, it’s important to ensure transparency and to avoid targeting and manipulating people who have not given their expressed consent. Tracking information can be justified for many reasons, to improve safety or efficiencies for example, but if you collect data using such technology be sure to be transparent and ethical about how it’s used. Customers who deposit their information with you trust you to guard it. As these revelations continue to unfold the fallout is likely to be significant. As you develop your business strategy here are a few things to consider:

  1. Guarding your customers means guarding your brand: Customers deposit their information with you and trust you to protect it. By letting down their customers Facebook has seriously marred their own brand.
  2. Transparency is de rigueur: Using data to create value for your customer is expected. Do it in a transparent way so everyone knows exactly what’s happening with their information.
  3. Rethink IP stalking: having your advertisement pop up when someone is looking for information on that topic is one thing. Targeting that IP address with advertisements after the person has moved to doing other things is “stalking”. While legal (for now) it is a bit creepy. Consider the backlash to your company if your client base were to feel you violated them in this way.

Victor Frankenstein’s living creation killed the love of his life when Victor broke a bargain he’d made with his monster. The whole ‘Social Media Monster’ that includes Facebook and others started out somewhat altruistically to connect people and improve lives. Let’s hope they can re-establish their original bargain and reign in the monster.

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