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Data privacy rights stronger after Cambridge Analytica scandal

LONDON — Five years after the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook, digital rights activists David Carroll and Brittany Kaiser said major steps have been taken towards consumers securing the right to own their data. 

The consulting firm Cambridge Analytica illegally used private data, harvested from 87 million Facebook users, to persuade undecided US voters in 2016 to back Donald Trump in the presidential election, and to sway British voters to leave the European Union. 

“The Cambridge Analytica scandal created an awareness around these issues because we finally imagined a threat to elections and democracy,” said Mr. Carroll, a US academic, at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference on Wednesday. 

This comes amid one of the latest major data privacy flashpoints, with fears that women in the United States seeking an abortion could be tracked down due to their online activity, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Mr. Carroll went to court in Britain to force Cambridge Analytica to hand over all of the personal information it held on him, in a legal battle that was documented in the 2019 Netflix film The Great Hack. 

He won his case but Cambridge Analytica had already filed for insolvency and he was unable to access all of his data. 

Since the release of the documentary, consumer data protection has improved in the United States with five states enacting comprehensive privacy laws, said Mr. Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York. 

California passed a law in 2018 that gives residents the right to see the specific pieces of personal data that a company has collected on them and request their data be deleted from e-commerce websites and social media. 

“(The Cambridge Analytica scandal) harnessed this public anxiety and created a voter upswell that forced Sacramento to make a law that would previously be inconceivable, in its progressive way to regulate its most important, arguably, business,” Mr. Carroll said. 

Ms. Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica staffer-turned-whistleblower, who testified in a 2018 British parliamentary inquiry into fake news and misinformation, said digital literacy has improved since the scandal broke. 

“I hear people say when I saw The Great Hack, it was the first time that I thought about how my data is being used and the first time I thought I should do something to protect myself,” said Kaiser, who went on to found the Own Your Data Foundation, which campaigns for increased transparency. 

“I see a whole new generation of people who actually care and are thinking about the ways that they use technology. We now see schools that are implementing digital literacy education at a national level.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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