The last three weeks have revealed how reliant political campaigns have become on people’s data. Almost 90 million Facebook users from Los Angeles to London may have had their online information illegally collected by Cambridge Analytica as part of its work for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Mark Zuckerberg, the social networking giant’s chief executive, will testify to U.S. lawmakers this week over claims that the tech giant played fast and loose in its protection of people’s online privacy. Both companies deny any wrongdoing. It’s legitimate to point the finger at the world’s largest social network and a data analytics firm with somewhat shady political connections. But there’s one sizeable piece of the puzzle that’s missing from the world’s newfound fixation on digital privacy: voters themselves.
In the nonstop global election cycle of the last 18 months, people across Europe, the United States and elsewhere have readily handed over their online information to campaigns with little thought about what such data would be used for. That includes willingly participating in online surveys, sharing social media usernames and downloading smartphone apps to offer political movements almost unprecedented insight into — and access to — their thoughts and voting intentions.
Call it the app-ification of the political world. Just as Facebook, YouTube and other popular digital services offered people apparently “free” goodies in return for their personal information, lawmakers have realized that they too can use similar smartphone-friendly tactics to (legitimately) gather data on potential voters.
That’s a worrying trend. Privacy campaigners — and, increasingly, the general public — have raised hackles about how much data many of the world’s largest tech companies now hold on all of our digital habits.