Facebook: Switzerland also vulnerable to manipulation

Since the revelations of the extent of Cambridge Analytica's (mis)use of Facebook data, Mark Zuckerberg's company is under fire in the US, the UK, and Europe. Associated Press

Amidst the storm surrounding Facebook user data and manipulation by the Cambridge Analytica firm, the canton Zurich data protection officer has said that such a scenario is also possible in Switzerland. Is it?

This content was published on March 21, 2018 minutes

In an interview with the Tages-AnzeigerExternal link newspaper published on Wednesday, Bruno Baeriswyl warned that mass psychological manipulation of voter behaviour could also happen in Switzerland; he mentioned specifically the upcoming federal elections.

“Following the Obama and Trump campaigns, various US advisers came to Switzerland to publicise the new possibilities of campaigning,” he said, without giving names. “I would not be surprised if we see such phenomena in the next national elections of 2019.”

Baeriswyl, “astonished” as to the extent of the meddling, criticised the lack of transparency around Facebook user data, as well as the long, opaque “terms and conditions” that must be accepted to create a profile.

In fact, he said, given that the terms of consent cannot be avoided, they could be viewed as “invalid”. But there is no way to challenge them under Swiss law, even the Federal Act on Data ProtectionExternal link (currently under revision); “you would have to sue under Californian law [where Facebook is based].”

Micro-targeting in Switzerland

Paul-Olivier Dehaye, boss of Geneva-based data protection group PersonalData.IOExternal link, told that he agreed with Baeriswyl on the nature of the threat, but not necessarily on how to combat it.

Having spent some years tracking the activities of Cambridge Analytica (Dehaye was active in working with German-language publication Das Magazin to reveal the extent of the data leaks), he reckons that Switzerland is as vulnerable as other countries.

The problem, as he sees it, is one of general ignorance. Users no longer understand the complex information ecosystem that surrounds them, nor know who to trust; Facebook has built an infrastructure that it can’t manage; and authorities are not applying existing laws stringently enough.

Into this breach move opportunistic political counsellors and strategists, he says, who may not be operating at such a large scale in Switzerland as Cambridge Analytica did in the UK and US, but are nevertheless using online campaigns to micro-target specific segments of the voting population.

Such practices were the focus of a recent investigation (in German)External link by Zurich magazine Republik into the allegedly illegal data practices of, amongst others, Swiss political parties and proponents of a campaign to scrap the licence fee for public broadcasting (rejected by voters earlier this month).

Not only do the campaigners target specific groups on Facebook, the article claims, but they also “mark” the users that visit their campaign websites, before following their surfing habits elsewhere online – therefore violating the data protection law.

And even beyond the concrete impact of such micro-targeting – academic studies are undecided – Dehaye reckons that mere “doubts” about voter manipulation can disrupt democratic procedures; during the Catalan referendum, he said, accusations of Russian meddling undermined much legitimate online campaigning by the pro-independence side.

Taking back control?

To tackle the threat in Switzerland, Dehaye says it’s important to give users the keys to understand who to trust and who not, online. This will involve education programmes for digital literacy and rights, as well as a stronger application of existing law.

Adrienne Fichter, a digital media author and journalist with Republik, reckons that adopting the terms of the EU General Data Protection RegulationExternal link would be a good start. However, she said, Switzerland is currently keen to keep to the terms of its own data act.

This latter, as opposed to the European proposal, doesn’t envisage data portability, she says, which would allow users take control of their own data produced online. Yet such a shift to empower of users, rather than online companies, would be a symbolic step towards reversing the 25 years of servility in which internet users have (often unwittingly) lived.

Dehaye, with a more global view, is somewhat optimistic as to Switzerland’s future role: in a world where large online conglomerates and geo-strategic competition between nations are dictating the terms of the debate, Switzerland – and its multilateral hub of Geneva – could shine. “Switzerland has a big chance to take on a leadership role here,” he says.

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