This is a fairly long article that traces the consequences of four things: the Equifax data breech, the failures at the heart of the Tory Party, the scandal of data traders such as Cambridge Analytica and the nature of Facebook. It is not that complimentary about any of these Organisations. It also presents the start of an argument that the Identity Card System has been introduced by stealth since 2010 and that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which is just about to enter the Committee Stage in the House of Commons – is being systematically disempowered.
In 2017 143m people had their data lost by Equifax. In 2013 and 2014 Yahoo exposed personal details for 1Bn and then 500m people. In 2016, 412m on AdultFriendFinder were leaked. In 2014 eBay lost data on 145m people. The 2017 leak contained all of the data required to create a completely fake identity for 40% of the US Population. The scandalous loss of data – for which the company has a duty of care to its shareholders if not the actual data subjects – was followed by three Equifax executives selling more than $1.8m of shares. Equifax haves stressed that there was no wrongdoing on the part of the executives. Which then begs many questions about why executives were kept ignorant of data security in a company that relies on data security.
Subsequent revelations about the 2017 data loss by Equifax showed that they set up a WordPress site leaving in such an amateurish way that it appeared to be a phishing site and that the site could be easily hacked. Then the number of people acknowledged to be affected began to rise. Suddenly it was not 143m Americans but also 44m UK Citizens. It had taken four months to even acknowledge the data loss. The entire situation was marked by amateurish incompentences and the kind of churlish bitching that takes place between office workers. The escalation of revelation dripped out over such a long time that it is, genuinely, difficult to see the story unfold. Unless you are one of the Americans whose Annual Tax refund has been claimed by a Fraudster.
When Equifax acknowledged the loss, Equifax stated that the following data points were lost: names, addresses, US social security numbers, some driver’s licence numbers, birth dates. Subsequently, during a US Senate Hearing, the list was extend to include: email addresses, tax identification numbers driver’s license issue dates, and driver’s license state of issue. This is enough information to become that person for all financial purposes. It has not only compromised the identiy of those people but of the whole economy for an entire generation, at least. Because: people have the same identity all of their lives.
The seriousness of this data loss for the US economy is significant. As a consequence the US Senate is in the process of attempting to cobble together the Data Breach Prevention And Compensation Act (DBPAC). This would be the first significant Data Protection Act in the US. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 has a lot of features that look a lot like data protection but falls short of the UK Data Protection Act 1998. Indeed, DBPAC could financially reward companies who have data breaches with compensation because of the way it is written. It is a knee jerk reaction to something that has been moderately managed in the EU since the 1970s. It is also a piece of legislation that has attracted significant lobbying.
The loss of Tax Identification Numbers means that the data loss includes UK and Canadian Citizens. Which would be illegal in the EU or the UK. Indeed, after 25th May 2018, with the introduction of General Data Protection Regulation Rights, the consequences for losing such data could be 4% of global turnover or €20m. However, because the data loss is in the US, there is little practical that any EU Citizen can do about it. As the UK is currently still a Member State of the EU, it is entirely reasonable to highlight the EU approach to Data Protection. In 2019 it will be one of the things that the UK will need to bargain with in order to get trade deals. The US will not be interested in the GDPR concept of “data creators owning their own data”.
The Equifax data breach has made some aspects of the trade in data clearer. Weekly salary information is for sale by Equifax through a subsidiary called The Work Number which contains week-by-week paystub information dating back years for many 30% of the US Population. In addition, other kinds of Employee information, such as health care provider, dental insurance and even if that employee has ever filed an unemployment claim is held. In 2009, The Work Number was claimed to be adding 12 million records annually – 108m new records since 2009. The desirability of The Work Number and its database resulted in the 2007 purchase by Equifax in 2007 for $1.4Bn. Which was a large purchase given the banking crisis was happening all around them. The trade in personal data was worth at least $1.4Bn to Equifax because the Work Number had a commodity that was desired by debt collectors, employers, banks and sales companies. The truth is that the Work Number may know more about a US Citizen than the US Government.
Equifax buy and sell data. Cambridge Analytica analyse data. Facebook collects metadata. Somewhere, someone makes money from data that people create, except the person who creates that data. Quite literally, the product is you and there is no mechanism to sell yourself. The General Data Protection Regulations begin to address that and seek to change that in order for the planned Single Digital Market, that the EU has been promoting since 2015, to exist. This is a market that the EU, conservatively, believes could contribute €415 billion per year to the EU economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
The data that Equifax buys and sells is what might be termed first generation data. It is data that you need to carry out a transactions. To pay your tax you need a tax number of some sort and some money. The trade in this sort of data is hugely profitable. Experian, Equifax and Callcredit are the three main UK Credit Reference Agencies. They deal in “identity verification” for the UK Government. Regardless of any public pronouncements by the 2010 Home Secretary, Theresa May, about the £4.5Bn Identity Card System being scrapped within 100 days of taking office, David Cameron was courting the Credit Reference agencies to replace the overt Identity Card System with a covert system.
Within days of taking office, David Cameron was having meetings with Credit Reference Agencies to track down and prosecute benefit cheats. What Cameron was establishing was a system whereby the Credit Reference Agency would collect data from the DWP and Local Authorities and sell it to the DWP and Local Authorities. There is an argument that this is economically inefficient which is minor compared to the core problem with this process: it is a privatised the Identy Card System. Theresa May abolished the office of Identity Commissioner and David Cameron created the process where people are continually obliged to prove their identity. The latest element of this is the intruduction, in the Digital Economy Act (2010, 2017) of the obligation to undergo Identity Checks to view internet pornography beginning in April 2018.
In effect, the much reviled Labour Government Identification Card was privatised and handed over to the Credit Reference Agencies. The Labour Market System (LMS) and JSA Payments System (JSAPS) were coopted into providing data that allowed transactions to take place. This was all billed as being part of tracking down and prosecuting benefit cheats or preventing children from being corrupted by pornography. In reality, the rate of benefit fraud and error is about 0.7% and has remained at that level for some time. The benefit cheats, were always a tiny minority as is the number of users of extreme pornography. By selecting tiny minorities much of the mission creep has remained invisible.
The AgeID, age verification system developed by Pornhub Network owners MindGeek is claimed to be insecure – and the rewards for being able to charge people for their sexual habits have been historically high. In 2016 Brazzers – also owned by MindGeek – lost 800,000 records of people. The explanation was that it was due to a “third party contractor”. Repeatedly, the blame for data loss has been on third parties. Indeed, the Equifax data loss was blamed on an Argentinian Company – another third party.
Mission creep meant that LMS and JSAPS could be used to establish a database to verify identity for voting purposes with the advent of ‘individual registration’. Which resulted in 30% of the population dropping off the Electoral Register and a structural registration gap in every person between 16 and 18 – because they have never interacted with the DWP before. The huge importance of this mission creep is that the DWP began to generate data that was no longer about carrying out a transaction. This new data – metadata – was about the context of the transaction. Metadata is key to any accusations of bad faith on the part of political parties or of wrongdoing.
The use of metadata is familiar, even if they do not know the word, to anybody who has filled in a Disability Benefits Form and then been obliged to sit through the Assessment Process. Without passing judgement on how flawed the process is, one clear thing can be understood is that the Assessment Process is all about metadata. It is data about data. One of the most frequent observations is that the report by the Health Care Professional bears no similarity to the information provided in the Benefits Forms. Metadata is, in a real sense, gossip or hearsay.
Gossiping with your Family Doctor is one way in which they become intimately familiar with your life. It is a root cause of the need for Doctor-Patient contract of confidentiality. The Health Care Professional (HCP) model replaces the contract with a financial one between the DWP and the HCP. There is no contract between the HCP and the Disabled Person being assessed because the HCP is not privy to confidential information. Just gossip and metadata. Which is a fundamental shift that has harmed hundreds of thousands of Disabled people and contributed to a systemically identifiable rise in the death rate for people on Disability Benefits.
Facebook excels at managing gossip. Unlike Equifax, Facebook is not really interested in transaction data. Facebook is very interested in metadata. Facebook rarely cares what you say – exactly – that would be a transaction. The overwhelming majority of Facebook Users are not that interesting. But Facebook are interested in who knows who and how and why and when and who talks to whom – that would be metadata. Metadata – the data we create, every day, about transactions we carry out – is the product that Facebook buys and sells. Indeed, the Equifax data could be taken by Facebook to generate additional metadata.
In Graph Theory, a clique is a subset of vertices of an undirected graph such that every two distinct vertices in the clique are adjacent; and the induced subgraph is complete. Which is just a way of saying there is a way to formalise, mathematically, the connection between a person and their friends and the metadata about those friends. Which is what Facebook calls a Social Graph. It sounds better than clique metadata. It also means that Facebook can automate a huge amount of metadata harvesting.
Cambridge Analytica claims that it excels at analysing metadata. When Developers share content on Facebook they follow the Open Graph tagging system to control over how content appears on Facebook. This means that developers could have a meta-tag system to designate information explicitly and ensure the “highest quality” posts on Facebook. When someone follows a link that has been meta-tagged they leave a digital footprint connecting their digital identity to whatever the meta-tag says. Cambridge Analytica would only need to define a meta-tag for “conservative” and “labour” and then attach that to pictures of different animals. Suddenly there is a way to relate political opinion to mundane pop quizzes.
The tag starts to say something about who you are and how you behave. Aleksandr Kogan, a Moldovan-born researcher from Cambridge University, harvesting the personal details of 30 million Facebook users via a personality app he developed. This was a metadata harvesting process which subsequently passed data to Cambridge Analytica. Again, the data was obtained from “a third party” – the same as the Equifax and Brazzers Data leak. Kogan now disputes the Cambridge Analytica version of events and Cambridge Analytica dispute the Kogan version of events and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie gives a parallel third version of events. What is not disputed is that the metadata harvesting both happened and happened because metadata is valuable.
All of those quizzes about “what is your Stripper Name” and so on, extracts metadata. Not only does it extract metadata about the person doing the quiz but it offers insight into the metadata connecting that person to all of their friends – and the friends of their friends. Which is where Cambridge Analytica has an entry point into the Social Graph of Facebook and so a way to infer what the personality of the real world person attached to a profile is like. The model, in general, fashionable at the moment for this kind of analysis is called OCEAN: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Everybody can be scored on “The Big Five: OCEAN” and that gives insight into how to manage them.
For example: Openness can be determined by discovering if someone, “has excellent ideas?” Which, then, gives the Social Graph something to test against. If someone claims to have excellent ideas but follows the same links all the time then there is reason to believe, statistically, that they will be narrow in experience. Which gives a way, psychologically, to address that person in a way that means something to that person. This can be discovered by linking the metadata of actual behaviour to the metadata of pop quizzes. Ultimately, that kind of data can be linked back to transaction data to provide a whole life picture of someone. It also allows nudges to be tailored to the individual.
Which means Facebook can be used to determine the real life behavioural identity of people and so what can be used to manipulate them. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica present this as being advertising or marketing but when this is part of political life it becomes something more than merely advertising. Facebook is a huge Tamagotchi. Facebook has actively designed User interactions that promote serotonin and dopamine production – the chemicals that drive pleasure and emotion in the brain. Quite literally, if Cambridge Analytica have access to Facebook then their client can nudge people to do a whole range of things and those people will enjoy being manipulated.
Score someone on the Big Five and you know what buttons they have to be pushed. Modern Psychology has been tinkering with this idea since BF Skinner. According to recent studies, people who score highly on Extraversion and Agreeableness tend towards Conservatism; Neuroticism and Agreeableness tend towards Labour. Even the reaction to words like “Neurotic” carry a lot of implications. Surely “Neurotic people need to take a pill” and “Agreeable people are nice” – being obvious responses. The power of the language is not to be underestimated as it is a key element of how nudges can be tailored. The average Conservative voter is significantly less open to experience than the average Labour voter. Even the language used “agreeableness” and “neuroticism” can be misleading. What is being narrated is how people will respond to particular buttons being pushed. Start out pushing the “agreeable” button and you capture the attention of both Labour and Conservative Voters. You can then split them by getting them to either react emotionally or be the centre of attention. That takes just one carefully crafted question. Which can be delivered on Facebook as a little quiz. A part of a feedback loop. You get chemically rewarded with dopamine for being yourself at the same time as being given a message that panders to your personality.
The Right can be told that they make the world feel at ease and will be the centre of global trade; while the Left will be told that they will make the world feel at ease by being able to make people feel better. Which are simplistic messages that put people into different social media bubbles. Which means that it is possible to create a troll for every Facebook User. Which is the logical end point for Cambridge Analytica: identify the personality traits, put the User in a bubble, introduce them to Trolls with instructions to push specific buttons. Which, everybody will deny because it overtly combines all of the negative aspects of the Big Five – OCEAN – model of personality. It is something that would be done by sociopaths and psychopaths and cynical manipulators not respectable, responsible researchers.
All of this makes a paranoid sense and allows Cambridge Analytica to provide a service to political parties based on the metadata connected to the social media. Which returns to the Experian data leak again. The truth is that the Experian data loss highlights what data is available to transaction data firms. This data could be legitimately purchased by Cambridge Analytica and matched up to Facebook metadata. That would allow and unscrupulous political Party to work out who is inclined to vote for them and match that to specifics of social and economic identity. with some carefully crafted nudging, that gives a winning brand that can be utterly unpopular but everybody repeatedly buys into.
Which how a Party that wants to stay in power has all of the tools available to disenfranchise those who will not vote for them and waste the time of those who would advocate voting against them. It costs tiny amounts of budget to hire people to troll on the internet. Indeed, some people can be persuaded to do it for free – simply push the appropriate Big Five buttons and someone will spend their time cranking out conspiracy theories all day long. Not only is it possible to hire trolls but it is possible to point them at specific people and dump them in a specific kind of social media bubble. Which is a service that Facebook thrives upon: analysing the metadata of Users in order to target interactions.
Facebook targets the right kind of interactions to allow Sellers to communicate with Buyers. The metadata context of any interaction can give incredibly detailed understanding of why and how a decision – in particular the decision to purchase – was made. Facebook is not obtaining revenue from advertising but, increasingly, from managing interactions by knowing what interactions make commercial sense. This is a shift from transactional data to metadata that has been taking place since the 1970s; but, it is also a common theme that dates back to the earliest processing of data by Hollerith in the US census and the later involvement of IBM in Nazi Germany as documented in the 2001 Book: “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation “. Facebook is not really a new business model.
Combining Transactions from the LMS and JSAPS with metadata gives a profile of the “common-stock” to use the language of Iain Duncan Smith. It gives any incumbent Party, with access to the Civil Service an advantage that goes beyond simply the privilege of office. It creates a data pathway from the heart of government to private businesses. Which creates a profit mechanism that rewards anybody who actively keeps the incumbent Party in power. Which means it is part of an array of ways that a Party could simply pay to remain in power. Indeed the “common-stock” approach of Iain Duncan Smith led to the proposal that the Unemployed ought to be issued with an Identity Card charged with money in order to restrict spending to an approved list of items. Which would have had the desirable side effect of generating masses of metadata that could be traced though the same kind of Social Graph as Facebook has created. Which would permit the perpetual redesign of nudges.
All of this supposition points to the possibility that there is a pattern of behaviour including paying large amounts of Party Funds into social media, by any means possible, in order to market the Party Brand Directly to the Consumer. This would be about buying future power – a well recognised phenomena in the US where the Presidential Candidate with the deepest pockets has the best chance of being elected. This pattern of behaviour would be recognised over time by failures where the spending breaks rules. Which is exactly what has been seen with the Tory Party since 2009: an increased number of serious, plausible and criminal accusations of electoral fraud related to spending. the accusations of fraud can be dismissed by claims of oversights in process and administration but the metadata is not so easily disposed of. This is the pattern of failure and explanation that has been common in American politics since Nixon and, now, appears to be embedded into the Conservative approach to election.
Labour has its own problems with accusations of Anti-Semitism, for example. These accusations are met with emotional responses which are then perpetuated far beyond any normal or rational period by simply selecting the Big Five character traits most associated with Labour voters and simply articulating the “Labour is Anti-Semitic” claim in an appropriate way. This kind of accusation is simple yet manages to sap a huge amount of time from Labour. Which Labour, with a huge membership, has a good deal more of than the Tories. Without anybody really noticing it, the UK has slipped into the political economy of reputation as a dominant economic drive in the last decade or so. Who we know has become more important than what we know. That kind of metadata has become critical to the delivery of any economic benefit.
The centre of a strategy creating a Brand of Perpetual Office would need a small Party with large amounts of funds. Quite simply, keeping a criminal conspiracy secret is achieved by involving as few people in the central decisions as is possible. In other words: outsource the entire Party and keep a central cabal. Which is no more nor less than the approach forced onto the Tory Party by their declining, ageing membership. The Conservatives are, without realising it, abdicating all power and handing it over to Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, Experian and anybody else who can trade in metadata. Yet this introduces exactly the problem that Equifax and Brazzers have experienced: everything done by a third party is “unreliable”. The problem is to keep the third parties in the dark by controlling the data. Which used to be possible, yet, as Wikileaks demonstrates, becomes increasingly implausible in a connected world because of the proliferation of metadata.
Ultimately the strategy of the Tory Party has been to reduce all politics to consumer choices. Companies with a product to sell are all better than the Tory Party at selling products. The Power shift that is being foisted upon the UK by the Tory Party transforms the electorate into minor shareholders of a series of media and communications companies. The Tory Party is paying to play and, when the funds run out to pay those media and communications companies, or the Tory Party consider the cost of winning the election is not value for money for the Party, or the particular company – such as Cambridge Analytica or SCL – ceases to be fashionable, then the Tory Party will move on to a new, shiny and more desirable purveyor of nudge. The single biggest failure of this has been Brexit. Not because of any political argument for or against Brexit but because Brexit was created as a consumer choice for a branded product that did not actually exist. Had people known it was a consumer choice, the process would have been a lot more critically informed. People need to know about the product.
Which currently leaves Cambridge Analytica at the heart of politics, potentially a client down, and in need of additional income. A toxic combination that will be going to the marketplace seeking a client for reward without any regard to the their political convictions. The Toxic Brand of the UK Indepence Party could be rehabilitated because, longer term, it has a history of taking up Tory defectors. The next round of commercially delivered nudge will be worse than the Tory Party version. Which, again, comes back to the Equifax Data Loss.
The Equifax Data Loss allows anybody with access to the lost Equifax database to model the economic capacity of the whole of the US and a significant part of the UK. Married to the LMS and JSAPS, that model could be made complete. Which would allow a potential Paying Customer of Cambridge Analytica – or similar data analytics company – to design a product called, say, “UK Government ™” which had the sole purpose of channelling all income “deemed surplus” from the “general stock” into the coffers of the shareholders of that potential Paying Customer. The failure at the heart of the Party of Government is in the process of institutionalising the worst aspects of Disaster Capitalism.
None of this seems like anything other than paranoid, science fiction, fantasy. Yet, if the outcomes of decisions by the incumbent Government are scrutinised then something disasterous has, in fact, happened. Which is nothing to do with taking a Party Political stance. Somehow, at the centre of political parties the idea that the Party is nothing more than a Brand has taken root. Those worry about building brands have been seduced into believing that they can build the perfect “Political Brand”. Which has led to a paralysis at the heart of mainstream politics. This paralysis suits those whose main political participation is enjoying the mixed metaphor of troughing down at the gravy train but it achieves very little for those whose Democratic Will is being systemically and systematically subverted.
Corbyn, whose political programme is recognised by both Swedish and Norwegian political commentators as being a broadly mainstream, centre left ideology is portrayed as being some kind of extreme Marxist-Leninist populist in the UK. Which is seen as legitimate political discourse because that is “his brand”. The Tory Party, in particular, has invested, systematically and long term, in becoming a Brand. Which has been driven by access to the transaction data of organisations such as Equifax and the metadata of such firms as Facebook and the analytics of such firms as Cambridge Analytica. Which ceases to be about politics and becomes fixated on the control, management and trade of data. Data that they do not own. The Tories desire to be a Populist Brand and, in order to do so, are portraying anybody – such as Corbyn – in the “political marketplace” as being Populist. It is not politics but Brand Building for the next consumer choice.
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal exposes a pathological aspect of the Tory Party which has persisted since the Tamworth Manifesto. The Tories actively work to prevent “unnecessary change”, fearing that “a perpetual vortex of agitation” would result. In the Twenty First Century, the ideological committment to the Tamworth Manifesto has run aground. The Tamworth Manifesto allowed for different brands of Tory Ideology all committed to “reform to survive”. With the advent of Big Data and the possibilities of transaction data and metadata, the Tories are undertaking a root and branch reform of society. Which is disasterously outclassed by the companies they have outsourced the project to. Companies who then outsource to third parties. Which is perfectly acceptable for a brand that will be purchased once every five years.
Ultimately, the metadata of recent politics demonstrates one thing clearly: politics is failing the democratic rights and aspirations of the Electorate on an industrial scale. The Brands manufactured by New Labour, The Tories, UKIP and even Corbyn are not political solutions. They are not products. They are the metadata of Political Parties. Corbyn and Momentum is a mass membership brand while the Tories are an elite, luxury brand and the UKIP brand is somewhere close to cheap vodka. Which leaves all of the parties incredibly vulnerable to companies whose motivations are simple and commerical and whose product is the manufacture of brands without any product. While Momentum is demanding actual thought out political products that can be delivered, the Tory Party is increasingly committed to a series of vanity projects. The kind of projects that appear in companies that have no clear product, purpose or direction. Brexit, the last big Tory Vanity Product is turning out to be an Edsel and the despair of scrambling around for something to hide it behind are amplifying the disasters – which are not multiplying but leaking out.
Just like the Equifax data.
Picture: Three Standard Stoppages, Marcel Duchamp, 1913.