By Finn Raben
Over the weekend the New York Times and Observer newspapers reported that data mining and analysis company Cambridge Analytica, a company that had been employed with considerable success by Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential campaign, had illegally harvested 50 million Facebook profiles in order to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. The Observer reports that data was collected via a digital app on the Facebook platform where hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends.
At the time of writing both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook deny any wrong doing. Furthermore Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix went on record in February to tell British MPs that the company categorically did not use Facebook data in its work. Although Cambridge Analytica may not be described as a traditional research company, they actively collect and analyse consumer data, and have previously appeared on market research industry platforms and engaged with the industry as peers.
A similar quandary was also raised last week in relation to Google, who has to deal with renewed questions regarding its historical scanning of users emails for marketing purposes.
Most people in the insights and data industry will immediately recognise the problematic nature of this data collection. Any researcher or data collector who is a member of ESOMAR, or any one of the national associations that require subscription to a set of Codes and Guidelines for data collection, will understand that if these claims are true, not only was this behaviour illegal and unethical, it was also damaging to the perception of the data collection industry.
What I have found particularly worrying in the coverage is that Christopher Wylie, the researcher employed by Cambridge Analytica who has turned whistleblower , said “I assumed it was entirely legal and above board”. This statement illustrates an issue that is now becoming prevalent in digital big data collection; the ethical role of the collector of data and their relationship with the public.
For lawmakers, data collection is data collection, and the rights of the public are paramount. As an industry we need to ensure that the codes and guidelines that our members adhere to, are understood by a much broader audience, particularly people working in data analytics and technology, so that the Christopher Wylies of this world know what is legal and morally appropriate, or the very future of our industry is at risk.
In the next few weeks more information will come out on both these stories, and if proved correct, I’m sure the legal ramifications will be far reaching. ESOMAR was founded 70 years ago with an unwavering commitment to ensuring research and data collection does not harm individuals or impact them directly. Cases such as these reinforce that in an era driven by passive digital analytics, the fundamental wisdom and crucial importance of respecting these principles endures. Furthermore, ESOMAR unequivocally condemns any data collection that does not conform to the ICC/ESOMAR International Code of Market, Opinion and Social Research and Data Analytics.
Our profession’s standing as a successful self-regulating industry has been recognised by the EU, who invited us to join a ‘Community of Practice’ on self-regulation. Now, we look forward to working more closely with legislators and regulators to promote and maintain the importance of high professional and ethical standards. In parallel, as the global voice of the data and insights industry ESOMAR will ensure that our members are heard by legislators across the globe, particularly in Brussels, and we can assure members that will look to broaden the reach of ESOMAR codes as the corner stone of ethical data collection and the security of the industry.
Finn Raben is Director General at ESOMAR, The Global Insights Community.