A Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, who helped expose how the consulting firm collected users’ Facebook data to create psychological profiles for clients such as President Trump’s 2016 general election campaign, spoke to more than 50 students in the Geoffrey Cowan Forum Thursday about how social media platforms gather and use personal data.
The Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy hosted the whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, who became popular after she was featured in “The Great Hack,” a 2019 Netflix documentary about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“One of the biggest issues in the world today is that we all live digital lives based off of the data that we produce every single day on various platforms and devices, and yet we do not have rights to that data,” she said.
Kaiser said she started working with data to help politicians push their messages in high school and went on to work for political candidates such as Howard Hughes and later former President Barack Obama for both his senatorial and presidential race. Kaiser helped Obama build his social media presence by creating strategies to collect data on voters.
“We started to use his page in order to collect basic data about people [such as]: do you care about healthcare, do you care about national security, do you care about the environment, and then we would use that data in order to make sure that you got segmented communications,” Kaiser said.
While working at Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser learned the firm was collecting targeted data on millions of Facebook users to illegally sell to President DonaldTrump’s campaign during the 2016 presidential election, and she knew she had to report what was going on.
“Any company that wants to collect data from us or even our government can collect data from us,” Kaiser said. “As much as they would like to buy and sell and trade that use it for whatever purposes without our explicit opt-in.”
Mittie Golding, a senior majoring in cinema and media studies, said she learned about Kaiser’s work when she watched “The Great Hack” in a School of Cinematic Arts class this semester. She said Kaiser’s talk gave her a new perspective on data collection and tech companies.
“Growing up in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen a lot of the way[s] that data impacts me, but we always learn about it there as a positive,” Golding said. “It’s really interesting to see its negative impacts and makes me think a lot about how I use social media and what I decide to share. “
Golding believes students can benefit from knowing about how big data can be used in a negative manner.
“Having any sort of required class on learning how to do this would be interesting. I’d also like to learn what data the school collects on me … but I really think that, especially in 2019, this is something that everyone needs to know about.”
Emily Olmos, a recent alumnus, enjoyed Kaiser’s talk and said more people should be aware of the data that is collected on them.
“I think it impacts everyone,” she said. “Something that she said that I hadn’t really thought of was how children in data [are used], because when I was 10 probably, I was on MySpace. I shouldn’t have been but I was. So like the fact that kids are able to, or have to give away their data is pretty crazy to me.”