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Breach of Trust or Breach of Data? Dylan Wittkower Weighs in on Cambridge Analytica

By Betsy Hnath

The New York Times and the Guardian both broke stories in mid-March about the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), unleashing a cascade of privacy questions.

Dylan Wittkower, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Old Dominion University, understands those concerns, but he doubts there is any major security risk.

"Identity theft is worth worrying about, but if your data is scraped and mined, that doesn't necessarily expose you to any risk of personally identifiable information falling into the hands of criminals," Wittkower said. "Responsible research will anonymize profiles, which provides an extra (but sometimes flimsy) layer of protection."

CA generated "psychographic profiles" of voters by analyzing data collected from third-party surveys distributed on Facebook.Respondents were not aware that the information they shared - including access to their broader circle of virtual friends, whose data was also scraped - would be used by CA.

The Times initially reported that CA improperly acquired information from 50 million Facebook users in efforts to help Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Within two weeks, the number had grown to nearly 90 million, and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and CEO, later faced interrogation from members of Congress about why his company hadn't done more to protect them.

Wittkower, however, doesn't see a decrease in Facebook users anytime soon.

"So long as there is no relevant alternative to Facebook, we can't expect a mass exodus,"he said. "So long as there is no mass exodus, leaving Facebook will only solve your individual issues, not the more important emergent social/political issues."

Fixing the problem, he said, "will require collective, coordinated political action, not merely individual choice."

Wittkower said his chief concern isn't that the information was scraped, but how that information was used and the ultimate consequences.

"Facebook's own data mining and user profile creation, along with the targeted and dark advertising that they offer, is bound to create polarization and undermine the basis of healthy, democratic political deliberation," he said.

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