Say the phrases “Cambridge Analytica” to a western politician — or anybody clutching a smartphone — and they’ll most likely wince. In spite of everything, this 12 months some startling revelations have tumbled out about how that British consulting firm harvested social media and shopper information to construct manipulative political and enterprise campaigns.

This week Britain’s Data Commissioner’s Workplace imposed a document £500,000 fine on Facebook for letting Cambridge Analytica use an app to entry as much as 87m consumer profiles with out permission. The ICO intends to bring felony proceedings towards Cambridge Analytica’s father or mother over its failure to deal correctly with the regulator’s enforcement discover.

It makes for lurid headlines: Cambridge Analytica did work for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential marketing campaign. Western intelligence teams say that Russia used social media to meddle in that election and the UK’s Brexit referendum.

If you wish to take a wider view of the underlying coverage points, ponder the parallels between this 12 months’s information harvesting story and the expansion within the 2000s of monetary improvements corresponding to credit score derivatives. The parallel would possibly initially sound odd. Credit score derivatives enable financiers to make bets about whether or not individuals, firms or international locations will default on their debt. Knowledge scientists at Cambridge Analytica amass shopper information to check (and manipulate) people. These duties don’t appear comparable.

However the parallel — and coverage lesson — lies in how politicians deal with innovation; or mishandle it. The concept of credit score derivatives first cropped up within the late 20th century when some younger(ish) financiers at locations corresponding to JPMorgan launched into frenetic innovation. Most non-bankers had no thought what the whizz-kids have been doing, or how their innovations would possibly ultimately change company and mortgage debt. For his or her half, the finance geeks weren’t hiding their improvements or being intentionally malicious; they advised themselves (and others) that their innovations would enhance the monetary system, whereas additionally making them wealthy.

However credit score derivatives and different monetary improvements have been broadly ignored as a result of they appeared so “nerdy” and mind-numbingly boring. Politicians and voters had no incentive to ask laborious questions as a result of they have been having fun with a budget mortgages and bank cards that the derivatives helped make doable. Regulators have been largely toothless as a result of the whizz children have been creating monetary devices that straddled nationwide borders, regulatory silos and outdated legal guidelines. The ability rested with the geeks till their improvements have been abused in a manner that contributed to a monetary disaster.

Quick ahead to now. Did this saga contain a workforce of younger(ish) geeks who felt intoxicated by the mental thrill of fast-paced innovation? Sure, though their new mental frontier was in information science, not finance. Did these geeks need to get wealthy? Positively. As for regulation, the innovation in pc science, like that in finance, has jumped quickly throughout nationwide borders and round present legal guidelines.

Politicians and voters additionally didn’t demand correct oversight. The world of massive information appears as geeky and boring to outsiders now as derivatives did again then. Shoppers like “free” web providers as a lot as they loved low-cost mortgages. Nobody needed to consider the hidden prices.

Perhaps it will now change. The Fb and Cambridge Analytica scandal has lastly pressured politicians to debate the dangers of massive information — simply because the 2008 monetary disaster sparked public scrutiny of finance. Regulators are belatedly crafting coverage responses. Shoppers have gotten (just a little) extra savvy about the price of “free”.

It’s doable to hope that this political hand-wringing will ultimately create a more healthy world of knowledge science, simply because the 2008 monetary disaster introduced the banking system a (little extra) below management. Innovation is a double-edged sword. Massive information will be misused by unscrupulous politicians and companies, simply as derivatives will be harmful within the fingers of grasping or reckless financiers (mixing them with subprime mortgages was a really dangerous thought). However these abuses don’t make the core thought of knowledge science — or derivatives — “dangerous”; quite the opposite, these advances can typically be very helpful instruments.

The important thing lesson is that innovation solely delivers actual advantages when there’s a correct system of ethics, political oversight and up-to-date legal guidelines.

Politicians and customers should scrutinise the geeks in a well timed manner. Notably when these geeks come bearing shopper presents that appear temptingly low-cost, straightforward to entry or “free”.

gillian.tett@ft.com



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