US needs to copy Europe on data protection to save democracy, professor says

Prof David Carroll, subject of ‘The Great Hack’, issues warning during Dublin visit

Having “muscular” data protection regulation matters to democracy, a data activist, who took Cambridge Analytica (CA) to court has said.

In Dublin to take part in a conference organised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Prof David Carroll told The Irish Times that the US needs to catch up with Europe on data protection in order to protect its democracy.

“Having muscular regulators scares away the bad guys,” he said.

Prof Carroll's fight to get access to data held on him by CA is featured in the Netflix film The Great Hack. The film documents CA's use of data harvested from 87 million Facebook users to try to swing the 2016 US presidential election campaign in favour of Donald Trump. The right to know what data a company holds about you provides an important potential deterrent to efforts to influence voters by way of campaigns such as that run by CA, he said.

“Pursuing my Cambridge Analytica data taught me a deep appreciation for essentially the [EU data protection regime] and what it does to protect democracies.”

Prof Carroll used the UK courts to try to get access to the data held about him by CA, as the data had been processed in the UK. He was ultimately unsuccessful, but the UK’s data regulator is to publish a report later this year into the extent of the data operation run by the now liquidated CA.

Prof Carroll, who teaches media design in New York’s Parsons School of Design, said there is little consensus as to the effectiveness of the 2016 CA operation. However, he believes it may have had an effect by microtargeting approximately 100,000 people in key competitive electoral districts. These people would have been followed across devices and platforms, with all the advertising they were being exposed to having been purchased by the CA operation, without their knowing this was happening.

Strong regulation

Prof Carroll said an attempt to use CA to support far-right parties during elections in France and Germany did not succeed because of the strength of the data regulators there.

“The US needs to catch up with Europe on data protection laws and protections. It matters to democracy itself. It matters to the privacy of the voting booth; it matters to the idea of being confident in free and fair elections.”

CA wanted to work for Marine Le Pen in France but the regulator there had a great reputation and CA was worried the work was illegal, Prof Carroll said. Not that much has changed as the US heads towards next year's presidential contest, he said. He expects both parties to spend heavily on online advertising. Many former CA employees have gone on to form new, similar companies.

“It’s a huge part of [Facebook’s] business. Political advertising is a huge money-maker around the world. In 2020, I would estimate that several hundred million dollars will be spent on Facebook. Because more than $100 million was spent by Trump [in 2016]. So now the other side is going to spend more money too. So it’s a cash cow for them.”

Elections are being increasingly fought on Facebook, and politicians believe they have to engage with it if they are to be elected. “So it is really concerning,” Prof Carroll said.

“We don’t know how to regulate these companies.”

On the same day The Great Hack was released, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission for consumer privacy violations. "Its stock went up $6 billion, because investors thought it wasn't a strong penalty," Prof Carroll said.