The Cambridge Analytica scandal around the 2016 U.S. presidential election remains one of the most astonishing revelations of not only the breadth of data social networks collect about us and our friends but how this data can be used to psychologically manipulate us. It was an unsettling insight into how what seems like harmless hanging on the web can be weaponized to undermine our democracy. And now, a new bill wants to give us more ownership over this data and how it might be used by political campaigns.
Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the Voter Privacy Act on Thursday, and according to a press release announcing the bill, it is a direct response to how shady data firm Cambridge Analytica used millions of Facebook users’ data to help the Trump campaign influence voters during the 2016 election.
The bill gives voters a litany of privileges over their own data and how it might be used (or misused) specifically by candidates and campaigns in federal elections. For starters, it gives voters the right to look over any of the personal information a campaign, candidate, or political organization collected. And in the event that a campaign does obtain their personal information from a data broker, the campaign is required to inform them, as well as give them the right to ask that this information be deleted and not sold to a third party. What’s more, the bill would let voters tell sites like Google and Facebook that they aren’t allowed to use their profiles to help campaigns create targeted political ads. The bill states that violating this act can result in a fine or imprisonment of up to three years or both.
“Political candidates and campaigns shouldn’t be able to use private data to manipulate and mislead voters,” Senator Feinstein said in a press release. “This bill would help put an end to such actions. Today, campaigns are legally able to conduct sophisticated online surveillance of everyone in our country in order to influence individuals based on their unique psychological characteristics. This targeted manipulation not only undermines our democracy, it’s a threat to basic individual freedom.”
Cambridge Analytica shut down its operations shortly after news of its role in the election swept the news cycle. But to believe that it is the only consulting company thinking of or already utilizing accessible user data to feed to its political clients around elections would be, sadly, a deeply misguided notion. Former Cambridge Analytica employees even expressed to Gizmodo at the time of the company’s demise that they weren’t the only firm conducting such psychologically manipulative work in the industry, they were just the ones that made headlines.
Feinstein’s bill effectively strips these slippery data firms of their nearly unbridled access to our personal information and freedom to use it as they please. That we don’t already have these basic rights to know how our personal information is used in federal elections is symbolic of the disturbingly exploitative state of data regulation.