Lord Knight: I’m an evangelist for technology – but we should all be concerned by its abuse

Posted On: 
11th June 2018

The attack on our democracy revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal raises fundamental questions about our legal system’s failure to keep up, warns Lord Knight, ahead of Thursday's debate on the abuse of social media data 

Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix

The revelations about how Cambridge Analytica abused the Facebook platform to influence elections have been shocking. I am leading a Lords debate on this issue to discuss how we best harness the positive power of social media platforms, whilst minimising the dangers of such abuse.

I am a regular Facebook user. I love the way it used by my street in Lewisham to share our stuff, organise parties, and create a vibrant community. I use Amazon’s Alexa, but I’m conscious that it is therefore listening to what is going on in my kitchen. I work for Tes, a company that connects and supports teachers with great online tools. I chair a business that is training iPhones in microscopy so that they can transform malaria diagnosis and asbestos fibre analysis.

I am therefore an evangelist for technology, but am appalled by its abuse. And there can be no greater abuse than the attack on our democracy revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

This story came to light thanks to the investigative work of journalist Carole Cadwalladr. Her investigations for the Guardian newspaper blew the lid on the connections between Cambridge Analytica, its parent company SCL, and a Canadian offshoot AggregateIQ. These businesses then appear to be connected to Brexit campaigns and to campaigns funded by supporters of President Trump. They in turn used weaknesses in the Facebook platform at the time to harvest huge amounts of personal data, to use for political purposes in the Referendum and the Trump campaign.

Cadwalladr has been critical of companies like Facebook for allowing this to happen and the lack of transparency as Congress, the UK Parliament and the European Parliament seek to understand what has happened. She told the EU Parliament last week: “Everything is running through the black boxes of tech companies and we have no idea what’s going on inside them. So critically we have no idea how much money was spent during the referendum, we don’t know who spent it, we don’t know where the money came from, we don’t know what advertisements people saw, we don’t know how they were targeted or what data that was based on.”

There are some close to this scandal who believe that the outcome of the Brexit referendum would otherwise have been different. Chris Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica staff member and whistle blower, told the same meeting in the EU Parliament he did not believe Brexit would have happened “were it not for the data targeting technology and network of actors set up by Cambridge Analytica”,

The UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham then added: “Recently we have seen that the behavioural advertising ecosystem has been applied across to political campaigning to influence how we vote. I am deeply concerned that this has happened without due legal or ethical consideration of the impacts to our democratic system.”

Denham added that some aspects of our legal systems had “failed to keep up with the unforeseen pace of the internet’s development”.

All of this comes just two weeks after the Data Protection Act received Royal Assent. The Bill is a great improvement but one based on consumers being informed enough to give consent. As the tech world develops at pace it is hard for us as consumers to know what we are consenting to.

I believe we need stronger ethical constraints on technology companies. I will use this debate to explore data trusts and a general duty of care that could provide the answer, but I also look forward to the wisdom of my peers in finding solutions to this fundamental problem.  

Lord Knight of Weymouth is a Labour peer. The debate on the use of social media data is on Thursday 14 June