After 3 years the UK’s Information Commissioner ICO have finally produced their report into the whole Cambridge Analytica affair. I wish I’d written up my thoughts publicly on the whole mess back in 2018. Just so I could link to it now and said ‘told you so’. At the time whenever I raised my concerns about the whole thing and questioned the narratives being spun in the media as being over blown with people, I was told that I should let good journalists do their jobs. If it was going off now, I certainly would. The time for holding ones tongue is over about almost everything tbh.
For those not in the know. I spent an accidental decade working in the HR / people tech / consulting sector. It was just a job. One in which I gained a lot of skills that I now bring to bear in my life and work with teams and companies. I had very mixed feelings about working in the industry at the time and spend years in my mid twenties wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. I have genuinely met people who are passionate about people analytics (IE work place surveillance) the mind boggles. I spent the entire time passionate about doing absolutely anything else, mostly reading about infrastructure theory and watching permaculture when I was supposed to be working. I’m glad I’m not anywhere near it any more.
When the CA debacle kicked off I told everyone who would listen that the claims being made by CA were full of shit and there was absolutely no way that the company were doing what they were claiming to be able to do. I am quite frankly owed apologies by several people to be quite honest with you. But I don’t really care. This blogpost is enough to draw a line under it.
Because my life is what it is. Back in the hell job I worked alongside one the data scientists who worked at CA. Back when the company was first founded immediately after finishing their PHD. I also met with another person with a very ashen face for beers the weekend after the ICO had raided CA’s offices and confiscated all their IT equipment. They were about to loose their job.
Back in March of 2018 I posted an article to LinkedIn: CAMBRIDGE APOCALYPTICA. Asking 10 open questions to my network at large. Inculding folks to issues statements on their ethics or moral positions. I got some responses, got some terse words over beers with folks in the industry, and I also got uninvited to ‘industry breakfast workshops’.
This was my second question:
2. Was the source of CA’s data pretty much an open secret?
Because literally everyone I knew in the UK HR tech industry knew how CA had got there data and that they had the data from the wider friends of friends. I remember being in the meeting where I first heard about it and saying ‘That sounds illegal’. It wasn’t, just shady. Plus you know, the API had let you do it back then.
A key controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica has been the degree to which the company continued to rely on controversial data sets it acquired from Facebook, even after Facebook had asked them to delete them.
The original Facebook data was sourced from Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, an academic at Cambridge university, who had developed the psychographic techniques which Cambridge Analytica had become known for. While Kogan’s models were informed by data samples generated from a personality test he ran on Facebook with the permission of users, it later transpired the data also included information scraped about the friends of users without permission.
The ICO’s report, however, found that Cambridge Analytica had made efforts to delete the data when Facebook requested it to do so in 2016. The authority also noted the company had begun efforts to replicate the Kogan data on a fully independent and permissioned basis as far back as 2015.
But the report cautioned that some derivative data persisted until it was deleted in 2017, a move signed off by then chief executive Alexander Nix.
When asked, you delete data its as simple as. All companies in this space understand they are handling data as toxic material and trying to turn lead into gold from it. They also deleted the derivative data in 2017. Presumably as they had their own complete ‘clean’ models by this point.
The most damning part of of this story is the following:
Another unpopular finding by the Commissioner relates to how ineffective the group’s predictive analytics really were. Potentially very. As noted in the report (our emphasis):
. . . while the models showed some success in correctly predicting attributes on individuals whose data was used in the training of the model, the real-world accuracy of these predictions — when used on new individuals whose data had not been used in the generating of the models — was likely much lower. Through the ICO’s analysis of internal company communications, the investigation identified there was a degree of scepticism within SCL as to the accuracy or reliability of the processing being undertaken. There appeared to be concern internally about the external messaging when set against the reality of their processing.
The group’s famous marketing slogan, meanwhile — that it had over 5,000 data points per individual on 230m adult Americans — was also deemed to have been an exaggeration by the Commissioner.
This is what I was saying to everyone who would listen at the time. Almost all companies in this space are over marketing themselves to ludicrous degrees. Unless a company has published white papers with technical details about how their tests work, what their reliability is etc. Don’t use them. In fact don’t take them, ask to see the development report especially its replication and reliability.
I said all this to a journalist in the orbit of the Guardian story who took me out for coffee. But they didn’t really want to hear it. The story was just too good I suppose.
It was astonishing to me at the time that the claims being made by CA were taken at face value by journalists and then by extension, the twittersphere and society at large. That whole debacle is largely the result of the mental spasms by a portion of the electorate who couldn’t accept the results of a democratic vote. People who never thought that ‘Politics’ could ever happen to them. So there just HAD to be nefarious influences at play, there had to be a bad guy to pin it all on. Cambridge Analytica! Russia! Eugh. Structural forces don’t have faces I guess.
I mean I’m not saying CA weren’t shady as shit. Bosses were filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers to entrap and surveil people. But the core of the story. Brexit and election interference was mega hype. There is a lot more weird shit with CA that the ICO didn’t address I acknowledge. If you want to follow along with that then be my guest. I love conspirtainment as much as the next person.
Infact it wouldn’t surprise me if some people who worked at CA weren’t spooks. In fact, because of the nature of psychometric profiling and the wider emerging field of psychographics. It wouldn’t surprise me firms in this space doing interesting things don’t have unbeknownst to them *someone* letting folks who have all this data via PRISM know what’s going on. But anyway thats just my unfounded opinion.
I would also note. This shit is everywhere. But you already know that. Nor should you consider the rant above a defence of CA or Facebook. I’m glad the social dilemma documentray has made such a splash. I havn’t seen it though, as I know that its not *for* me.
Fuck everybody involved in data surveillance. Especially the mobile games industry too. Some mobile games are provably addictive. There’s a reason for that. On one side there’s psychologists and data scientists involved in the design the of games. On the other side you have another set of psychologists working out what the first set of psychologists are measuring and what they have done. TBH you should probably go back and look though the fine print in the T&C’s of all the puzzle games you’ve played on your iPhone in the last 10 years that showed you adverts.
Anyways. After three years, Ted talks, a Netflix documentary, overhyped reporting, and arguments with friends that got consumed by and wrapped up in all all that. Brexit is still going to happen and everything is worse than it was before. Exactly as it was back in 2018. Its infowar like the unfolding Q insanity aided and abetted by the design of monopolistic tech companies that swing elections. Not small tech companies with lying marketing departments.
The whole debacle did sell some newspapers and kept engagement high on social media I suppose. Good for some people. But all those millions of hours of cognitive energy expended online by people mad about CA and Brexit etc is revealed for what it actually was.
A waste of time.
This week music journalist and booking agent Lisa Blanning joined me for an hour of internet
Coding python, pythagorean cult visualisation exercises, code loops, empirically felt variations in experience, and psychedelic technology criticism.
Update From The Island
Finally got rid of Zell. He was only around for a couple of weeks.
I love Claude. Thought this was mega harsh from Maple, but really THAT not surprised.
Just having a nice time outside my no ramp house.
The Ministry Of My Own Labour
- Posted the new CIWM above.
- Delivered an intro to a scifi anthology book.
- Started a new mega doc because I was told too.
- Recorded myself reading some clips from the short story I’ve sold.
- Wrote 6k words about wordpress and the #supportnet. Posting that soon.
- Updated the branding for permanentlymoved.online and tweaked some of the back end details to play nicer with apple podcasts.
- Gained one new regular monthly supporter who also reached out and sent me a wonderful and encouraging message. You know who you are: THANK YOU!
Dipping the Stacks
Still reading and taking notes on Emissary’s Guide To Worlding. But I’ve dropped everything else I’m reading to start KSR’s Ministry for the Future. I’m going to buy it in hardback next time I go into town. But for now I’m listening to it on audible. I’m about 20% in and … wow.
Despite not spending much time on Twitter anymore: if people follow me then I’ll almost always check out their ‘link in bio’. I may not follow them back on the platform, but if someone has taken the time to follow me I’ll always take the time to check out their work. If someone has an obviously active blog then I’ll throw it in my RSS reader.
Now if someone has a debut album out, and they have come across my work and followed me. Then of course I’m going to listen to it. I’m really glad I did. I’ve listened to it several times this week.
The album’s production is lo-fi and defined completely by its restraint. Tracks like “They are a follower’ are almost claustrophobic with its minimalism.
A key element of the song writing for me is the primacy of the rhythm in the vocal lines. Contrasted against the largely sparse production if focuses the lyrics like a lens.
It is a deeply personal album about identity and transformation and how those things effect others around you. Pick it up over on bandcamp. Its great.
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