Sputnik: Cambridge Analytica researcher Alexander Kogan has already called massive data harvesting a pretty usual thing. How widespread is the practice now and what are the legal mechanisms behind it?
Yair Cohen: It seems to be a widespread practice among some social media companies, because what we are seeing is that their business model is not as we thought previously based on selling advertising, but rather selling huge amounts of data. The fact that the information data being sold is not, strictly speaking, private is neither here nor there.
We know that email harvesting, for example, is being outlawed in many countries around the world, even though email addresses are in the public domain. It’s not that the information is private or public that makes the difference, but it’s rather putting that data together, it’s the accumulation of data, categorizing the data, putting it into a very specific use. You need some very sophisticated software in order to do that.
I think that is where the real risk is, because once you can accumulate a huge amount of data and categories it into groups, then you can use your influence or sell that influence to all sorts of other organizations, from political parties we know to commercial organizations, in order to effectively brainwash those users.
Sputnik: I’ve been getting many emails from companies that are abiding by the new UK law which has to do with data protection of personal information, but the average man on the street doesn’t understand what the implications are, what they are signing and getting involved in. How can they go about educating the general public?
Yair Cohen: You are absolutely correct and there is an argument which I clearly support, that social media companies have been making the reading of terms and conditions extremely difficult deliberately, just in order to make it very hard for people to see and to spend time to read the conditions so I think one of the things that we need to do is to make those terms and conditions very simple: tell people what you do, tell people what is likely to happen with the data. I think that would be a starting point and people do get suspicious now. People are starting to think do I really want to share that part of information.
On the other hand, some people are saying, look you know everything is out there anyway, what do I care. But I think that ultimately the biggest threat for us is being brainwashed. It is having someone unbeknown to us changing the way we think about things, changing the way we feel about things, but doing this on the industrial scale without us having the ability to object to it.
You have the ability to object to watching the advertisements on the television, for example, as you can just switch it off, you don’t have to expose yourself to that form of brainwashing, but when it comes to fake news it’s very difficult to do.
The views and opinion expressed by Yair Cohen are those of the speaker and do not necessarily represent those of Sputnik.