Last week, social media giant Facebook announced that it was suspending data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) from its platform. According to Facebook, CA had violated its policies on user data when a researcher accessed millions of user’s data from the site and transferred it to CA.
CA has so far denied any accusations of wrongdoing and has since issued a statement asserting that the middleman, Global Science Research, was entirely to blame for any violations of Facebook’s policies, doubling down on denials it has had to issue repeatedly since the 2016 US general election.
CEO Alexander Nix told a UK parliamentary select committee two weeks ago that data analytics is embedded in modern political practice and the only reason why people are upset with CA’s work is “they don’t like the candidate who won”.
Thousands of miles away in Nairobi, those of us who watched the 2017 Kenyan election closely received the news with a mix of vindication and alarm. Vindication, because we had already seen the footprints of various data analytics firms like CA all over our contentious, yet-unresolved 2017 election; alarm because we still don’t know what exactly CA did in Kenya beyond its PR operations.
We know that since 2013, digital tools have been extensively used in our politics as our major political parties spent millions on foreign PR and IT consultants. We know that in 2012, a young consultant working for the firm in Kenya was found dead in his hotel room. In 2017, Privacy International claimed that the ruling Jubilee Party spent $6m to contract Cambridge Analytica, while the opposition retained Aristotle, Inc for its own analytics operation. In fact, in the secret video shot by Channel 4, Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica, says of the Jubilee party, “we have rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys… We’d write all the speeches and stage the whole thing, so just about every element of his campaign.”
Beyond a mere 'breach of trust', this scandal raises important legal, moral and philosophical questions about the nature of politics in the digital age, in which Kenya is instructive.
Responding to the reports, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that the site “had made mistakes” and that there had been a “breach of trust”. But this legalese doesn’t get to the heart of what Cambridge Analytica has done, or what Facebook has made possible: the core issues that come up when technology collides so crudely with politics. Beyond a mere “breach of trust” this scandal raises important legal, moral and philosophical questions about the nature of politics in the digital age, in which Kenya is instructive.
Privacy and data
The best way to think about this scandal is as three concentric rings of increasing historical impact. The smallest ring – or the immediate issue – concerns privacy and data, and especially the legal space in which social media sites operate. When individuals hand over their private data to social media sites, they believe that what they are doing is similar to having a one on one conversation with family, friends or colleagues but on a specific platform. But a social media site is not a telephone company or a public space. It is a private corporation that needs to make money for its shareholders. The easiest way for them to do that is to turn all the information that you hand over to them into a product for other people to sell you things – which is what Facebook routinely does.
In this case, an innocuous quiz administered to about a quarter of a million people allowed a firm to collect private data on over 50 million users because it also surreptitiously collected information on friends and “friends of friends” – people who had not consented to allow their data to be mined. And that, in part, is why this issue has caused problems for Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in the UK and not in North America or Africa: UK privacy law prohibits such indirect data collection and has systems in place to punish it. In the US, there isn’t a unified law prohibiting this third party data mining so journalists have scrambled to find a connection between CA and Russian collusion in the general election as a smoking gun for culpability. In Kenya, which to date still doesn’t have a broad data protection law, users are essentially at the mercy of their own discernment.
Of course, illegality and immorality are two separate things. Much of the problem here is that information was being taken from people who did not expressly consent to having it taken. As researcher Zeynep Tufecki has demonstrated, until 2014 this was not a bug in Facebook’s systems – it was a feature that made it so attractive to app developers because of the ability to easily amass large amounts of user data. Data collection in this way is a violation of users’ privacy rights and is certainly immoral, even if legislators around the world have been loath to follow Europe’s lead and develop strong regulations that rein in such predatory behaviour.
Foreign interference in domestic politics
The next circle out is the conversation on foreign interference in domestic politics, and this has more to do with CA’s political consulting and what it does with your data once it has it. Based on the secretly recorded conversations shared by Channel 4 and the Guardian, Cambridge Analytica routinely violated EU and UK laws on bribery and working with foreign governments. CEO Alexander Nix admits in the video that the firm would gladly bribe, entrap and even procure prostitutes for clients. The ongoing investigation also revealed that Israeli operatives procured private emails of now Nigerian President Buhari and attempted to sell them to CA in order to influence the 2015 Nigerian election. All of this is illegal in the UK, where the corporation is domiciled.
Is it illegal in the country for which the activities were undertaken? Bribery and prostitution are, perhaps, but in the absence of a strong data protection laws in Kenya, strictly speaking, data mining is not illegal. In fact, private electronic communications are constantly interfered with – phones are bugged, emails monitored – often by the government itself and with no consequences for perpetrators. LGBT rights organisations have cases where clients are being blackmailed with being outed based on their private communications. Nor is there a culture of responsible data management. Companies using social media for customer service routinely reveal private customer information online without consent.
Late last year it emerged that the treasury could not identify the private company that had been collecting revenue for the e-Citizen platform, which collects millions of terabytes of personal identity information on anyone who needs to get a new driver’s license, buy a car, register to vote, or register a business. No one has been charged with any offence in this regard.
Coincidentally, the Kenyan parliament is debating the Cyber Crimes bill this week, but typical of the National Assembly in Kenya, even in the shadow of these devastating revelations, the focus of the debates has been only on how data insecurity affects members of parliament and how MPs can be protected from citizens.
Kenyan politicians still don’t get it. Or maybe they do, and this is wilful ignorance on their part to create a legal framework that allows them to punish their opponents but still facilitate the kind of manipulation that CA is accused of perpetrating over the last six years. After all, the Channel 4’s undercover investigation affirms that Kenya is CA’s biggest success story – the one they use to lure in politicians who want a shortcut to power. CA twice built Kenya’s ruling party in a London boardroom on the back of a legal and moral vacuum and they are proud of it.
The ethical and moral dimension
Which leads to the third and largest ring, that is, the ethical and moral dimension of the ongoing scandal. Should a British company be able to fly into an already heated political context halfway around the world and heavily influence political discourse for profit? Nix himself acknowledged in an interview with Tech Crunch last year that CA was well aware of the potential consequences of interfering in the Kenyan election. Shouldn’t there be consequences for a corporation that riles up dangerous ethnonationalist rhetoric purely for profit and then gets to leave without having to deal with the fallout? For CA, the Kenyan election was a revenue stream. For Kenyans, it was life or death. Shouldn’t some things be sacred?
In the colonial era, we talked about divide and rule: about the British East Africa Company pitting African tribes against each other in order to make it easier for them to control and subjugate. How, after almost 60 years of independence, is Kenya still here?
Recall that at the time of the 2013 election, the two protagonists of the Jubilee party were facing indictments at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed during the 2008 post-election violence. The 2013 Kenyan election campaign didn’t just bring the Jubilee administration into power. It has had serious social and political consequences for the country and the region. The PR spin around their candidacy portrayed them as victims of an elaborate Western plot to persecute African politicians. The view was unquestioningly adopted and propagated by academics and local media, many who owe their financial survival to their relationship with power. It erased the plight victims of election violence in Kenya and gave quarter to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of overseeing genocide in Darfur and the Blue Nile state. This narrative became so big that at one point African nations, which make up the largest single regional block in the membership of the ICC, threatened to withdraw from the court en masse, only for the current Kenyan attorney general to quietly state earlier this year that Kenya has no intention of leaving the ICC.
Simply calling this irony doesn’t do the situation justice: a political party went on a crusade against neo-colonial interference while paying a British company to package and propagate that message. And the damage is much deeper than that. In the colonial era, we talked about divide and rule: about the British East Africa Company pitting African tribes against each other in order to make it easier for them to control and subjugate. How, after almost 60 years of independence, is Kenya still here?
Ultimately, precision will be key to responding to the current scandal. Cambridge Analytica was both a data analytics corporation and a political consultancy, and it is important not to conflate the responses to both. The solution to the data analytics problem does not lie in increasing oversight of what end users do on social media as a Kenyan MP suggested yesterday. People have the right to offer up whatever information they want to offer up to the public provided they fully understand the consequences and consent. The solution here is in restricting what companies like Facebook are able to do with that data once users provide it. It’s one thing for to use analytics to try and sell things – your financial position should ideally act as a natural check against spending money you don’t have. It’s another thing altogether for the same technology to be used to mobilise political viewpoints that will take years to undo.
The political consulting problem is more complex because the solution lies in changing the political culture around the world. It’s about destroying the idea that it’s okay to leave moral values behind when flying into developing countries to tilt the balance of political power towards tyranny. It lies in part in enforcing laws that restrict the way political parties in the developing world spend money. It lies in creating a culture that sees African people as more than an inconvenience on the way to power. The rhetoric around the 2017 election in Kenya has damaged lives and livelihoods. Fear of ethnic violence was so high that certain neighbourhoods were emptied out. Personal relationships have been irreparably damaged. None of this is illegal per se, but it is deeply immoral, and this needs to count for something.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.