DTS: ‘Regulate Big Tech and hold engineers accountable’ Cambridge Analytica whistleblower demands
Data and software engineers have a moral duty to think more carefully about how and why they build things, according to Cambridge Analytica/SCL whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who took to the stage at Dublin Tech Summit last week, calling for the regulation of Big Tech companies.
It’s been four years now since Canada’s most famous data scientist implicated both his former employers and Facebook in a massive data breach, which triggered multiple government investigations and raised wider concerns about privacy, the unchecked power of Big Tech, and Western democracy’s vulnerability to disinformation.
It’s given Wylie, whose day job is currently head of insight and emerging technologies at Swedish fashion retailer H&M, plenty of time to reflect on what has and has not happened in the summit session entitled “Reflections of a Whistleblower”.
In a candid conversation with business journalist and media exec Eric Schurenberg, Wylie gave his tech audience food for thought, describing his state of mind in the early days of working at SCL, which he claims was also responsible for manipulating the outcome of elections in countries such as Trinidad and Nigeria.
“I believed that, at the time, I was just building tech. You celebrate your failures and move on until it works – you build things, grow things, disrupt things – but the thing we don’t talk about in the tech community – we’re starting to talk about it now – is that while moving fast and breaking things is a great model for growth if you want to make money, it ignores the impact on society and the environment the moral impact.”
“What happens if you move fast and break things but the thing that you break is a democracy?”
Yet as Wylie tells it, the microtargetting data techniques that ended up causing so much damage (and may have influenced the outcome of the UK Brexit vote and 2016 US 2016 Elections) was originally devised as a tech-for-good endeavor.
Wylie joined the UK military-founded company in 2012-13 to examine why some groups were more vulnerable to radicalisation and extremism online.
At the time, the techniques Wylie developed came to the attention of a little-known alt right media exec Steve Bannon, who persuaded billionaire Republican tech investor Robert Mercer to buy the company and use the firm to stir up what Wylie describes as “a culture war”.
“Overnight our work went from studying pathways to radicalisation and the type of things that make young men in particular prone to that to becoming a targeting system to radicalise people,” said Wylie.
“Within a couple of months we had people who worked for Russian intelligence agencies joining the company while projects that looked at targeting radical young men in the Middle East and North Africa were transposed to the US and it became an engine for radicalisation in the United States,” he added.
Cult of personalities
According to Wylie, he was caught in a perfect storm of data science and a cult of personalities with an extreme right wing agenda.
He describes Bannon – who went on to serve as President Trump’s chief strategist – as “a very intelligent man” whom he initially thought was “cool to work with” until his motives began to unfold.
“He sees the US as having lost its way and believes that you have to dismantle and isolate society and then rebuild it,” Wylie added
Cambridge Analytica’s owner Mercer, an AI billionaire and computer engineer who devised one of the first algorithms used in hedge funds, is described meanwhile as eccentric ideologue.
“He’s someone who looks upon the moral decay of America as an engineering problem and thinks they can recreate it from the ground up with data and AI,” said Wylie.
And then there’s Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO – Alexander Nix – whom Wylie refers to as “an old Etonian ‘colonial administrator’ born in the wrong era”.
Wylie added: “Nix enjoyed the feeling that he was a secret operator who went in and told presidents of foreign powers what they should be doing…Colonialism never really died – it just moved onto the internet.”
And what of the platform through which Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest so much data from over 87mn users? Facebook….
Wylie alleges that Facebook threatened him after he left Cambridge Analytica and tried to go public about both firms’ activities. He repeated these claims last week in Dublin: “They [Facebook] knew about it and gave permission for the app that was collecting data.”
“Later when they testified in the UK Parliament they said that they didn’t read the terms and conditions of the app and didn’t know what was happening.”
According to Wylie, Facebook is a company that is “subject to moral decay”.
He pointed to the genocide of Muslims in Myanmar that is reported to have been incited by the Burmese military through Facebook – which the social media firm failed to take action on until it was too late.
“Mark Zuckerberg was warned about that by the UN and he did nothing because he doesn’t care. You have a CEO who will not lift a finger in a country where a genocide is happening.”
Wylie argued that it shouldn’t be the case that a social media platform is able to go on operating after events like this. He said that the law needed to change to prevent such platforms from “causing harm to our democracy and our mental health” – a statement that evoked a loud cheer from the DTS audience.
He said that if you look at emerging technologies in the context of history, they all started off without a regulator – until a disaster happened.
“There was no FAA when airplanes were first invented, but after a series of disasters at county fairs in the 1930s the regulator was born. There was no FDA when pharmaceutical first emerged – typically it takes disaster like Thalidomide for the public to realise that we can’t trust drug companies to self certify their drubs are safe.
“So now we have a situation where we have these digital platforms and they are causing harm. We don’t regulate planes by terms and conditions on the ticket sale – there are no ‘opt ins’ when it comes to the design of the wing – there is inspection and regulators that know what they’re doing and govern standards and compliance.”
As fond as Big Tech companies are of referring to themselves as “free services”, Wylie argued that they are actually utilities – part of our national infrastructure – and must be governed as such.
“Why is it that Big Tech is the only industry that doesn’t have a technically competent regulator? Why do we not have safety standards? Why do we not have an ethics code for engineers?
Wylie concluded that until the industry starts to recognise the role of product design the role of engineers in Big Tech, then nothing much is likely to change.
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