A couple of weeks ago when I appeared on a discussion panel organised by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner around the Auckland Arts Festival stage production of George Orwell's 1984, I decided to talk not about how we might be surveilled, but how we are being surveilled, every second, by big internet companies.
We receive useful services from those companies in exchange for our data, which they use in turn to profile us as customers, usually for the benefit of their advertisers. The key question was, I ventured, not whether our private information was being held, but what happened to it.
China's grim march toward its "Social Credit" system has begun – and it employs state-controlled analogues of Google, Facebook, Amazon and PayPal to rate and rank every citizen. People's score will be affected not only by their own actions, but by the company their keep. And this isn't even the full government scheme, which doesn't launch until 2020. The Guardian's Tim Phillips recently signed off with this column on "the dramatic and troubling changes now sweeping the world’s wealthiest and most powerful authoritarian nation".
I also noted that Orwell's book was not only about surveillance and the surrender of privacy, but control of language and the undermining of the idea of objective truth. We saw this in action in the 2016 US general election – and the fact that mass data collection by state agencies may be of crucial help in finding out exactly when happened there presents quite a moral conundrum.
I'd love to say I mentioned Cambridge Analytica, but I didn't. But what has emarged over a year's persistent work by The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr – and more particularly the shocking revelations this week – fits the bill.
In short, Cambridge Analytica, the data firm owned by Trump backer Robert Mercer, used information hoovered up – in breach of terms and probably the law, and certainly without users' knowledge – from 50 million Facebook accounts to guide an unprecedented psychographic campaign. Not long after the election, it emerged that the Trump campaign had delivered political advertising in a new way, in thousands of different iterations, sometimes within the same day. We now know how.
Cadwalladr spent a year talking to former Cambridge Analytica data scientist Chris Wylie before he was ready to go public. He explained in this story in The Observer how the information was harvested under the auspices of an academic research project that took the data not only of the people it paid to take a personality test, but that of their Facebook friends too. Wylie said he had come to realise he was part of the creation of “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool”.
There's also a video interview with Wylie:
The full extent of Facebook's own complicity is yet to be determined, but Techcrunch writer Josh Constine's Facebook and the endless string of worst-case scenarios explains how it was allowed to happen. The very, very best scenario is that Facebook showed a sustained recklessness with our privacy.
But things got even more alarming as UK Channel 4 published the results of a video sting carried out on Cambridge Analytica's senior management. First, them talking about the full range of dirty tricks their company could offer in foreign elections.
And then, bragging about what they depicted as the company's comprehensive involvement in the Trump campaign, including what appear to be illegal activities and the destruction of material communications. It raises questions about links between Russian state interests – which we know for a fact to have been active players during the election campaign – and what this company was doing.
Meanwhile, BBC Newsnight looked at whether Cambridge was involved in the Leave campaign ahead of the Brexit referendum – the company bragged about it then but denies any involvement now – a story it said "raises troubling questions about whether, in the age of big data, our democracy is open to manipulation".
It seems like that some of what the excutives said in what they thought was a business pitch was bullshit. But how much?
Big data and the democratic process are not exactly strangers. Many of us were awed by the work that firms like Blue State Digital did in marshalling votes for the first Obama campaign. But that was largely about a big workforce personally reaching out to voters, keeping their names and getting them to the polls. This targeting of people's psychological vulnerabilities seems something else altogether. It is, in its way, also Orwellian. Winston Smith was scared of rats more than anything.
It seems vitally important that we know as much as we can about this. State processes are in motion. But that we know what we now know is yet another vindication of real journalism.
PS: you can also watch a video of that 1984 discussion, and I think it's worthwhile less for my contributions than for a chance to hear from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn. She is really worth listening to.