Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced and now closed political-consulting firm that got caught staging a heist of tens of millions of Facebook users’ data, now looks to be suffering a final indignity: being seen as not that special of a villain after all.
Two days after the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office released a lengthy report that found Cambridge Analytica’s work did not influence the Brexit referendum, one of that British firm’s foremost American critics argued that Cambridge’s death was meaningless because the underlying privacy problem remains very much alive.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York, made this case by walking an online audience through his own Cambridge Analytica file—for which he pursued a legal case in the U.K. with only partial success before investigators for Britain’s Channel 4 News found his details in a massive stash of leaked Cambridge data.
As viewers of Carroll’s talk Wednesday at the TEDxMidAtlantic online conference saw, most of this was other people’s work—bits harvested by third-party data brokers and then bought by Cambridge to feed into personality scores for such metrics as neuroticism and conscientiousness.
Carroll, semi-famous for his role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, emphasized three key points about the work Cambridge did for such Republican customers as President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
First, his file wasn’t that comprehensive because of the obvious unlikelihood of a Brooklyn academic voting for Trump—“I was not a targeted voter”—and his own efforts to be “a very privacy-defensive consumer.” Nor was the material collected by such data brokers as Data Trust and Infogroup (now Data Axle) all that accurate.
It’s not uncommon for households in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to lose internet for a full day. The last time it happened, back in the spring, Christina Rothermel-Branham connected herself (a professor at Northeastern State University, teaching online) and her son (a kindergartener at Heritage Elementary, learning online) to the hotspot on her phone. Luckily, nobody had a Zoom call scheduled that day; worksheets and YouTube videos proceeded as planned.
Rothermel-Branham’s son is now in first grade. He has multiple Zoom sessions per day and takes online classes through Outschool. She doesn’t know what they’ll do the next time their house loses service. She hopes her phone’s hotspot will be able to handle both of their video calls at once — but she’s worried that it won’t.
Rothermel-Branham’s son is one of the millions of students around the US who are currently taking some (or all) of their classes remotely. That’s been the status quo since the spring for many districts, which moved instruction online to limit the spread of COVID-19. The first few weeks of school were difficult for rural families. Teachers struggled to reach disconnected students, using phone calls, social media, and text messages. But they only had to finish the spring, and many hoped that by the start of the new school year in the fall, things would be better.
Almost seven months later, rural districts around the country are still scrambling to accommodate all of their pupils. It’s become clear to teachers, administrators, and community members that the digital divide is too big for schools to bridge on their own. The infrastructure needed to teach rural students remotely would require systemic change — it would require government assistance. Months into the pandemic, educators say they still don’t have what they need.