British Columbia

'This is now baked into our system': concern raised over fate of democracy in big data era

As stories emerge about the mass collection and use of data to influence politics around the world, the question is turning to how democratic systems and institutions can stand up in the big data era.

Two B.C. experts weigh in on how democratic systems are affected by digital analytics and data collection

"The sheer amount of information that we share about ourselves, about people we know, is really unprecedented and I don’t think it really fits previous models of understanding how democracy and society function," says Mike Larsen. (Shutterstock)

As stories emerge about the collection and use of data to influence political outcomes around the world, the question is turning to how democratic systems and institutions can stand up in the big data era.

Mike Larsen, president of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and a professor of criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the fundamental understanding of how politics work is shifting.

"We are still operating with an analogue version of democracy in our heads," Larsen said. "We need to catch up with our imagination of what democracy is if we want to ensure that there are proper regulations in place."

The idea that political parties reach and woo voters through campaigns and advertisements is partially accurate but doesn't cover the whole picture, Larsen said.

Canadian whistleblower Chris Wylie recently told a British parliamentary committee that he believed believed that a Victoria-based firm, AggregateIQ (AIQ), had drawn on the databases of British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica for its work on the Brexit referendum.

The data would be used, he said, to influence what certain voters saw on social media.

His understanding, he told the committee, was that AIQ was targeting people who were seen as key to swaying the result of the referendum. 

Wylie made the comments following revelations that Cambridge Analytica used the data of 50 million Facebook users to target them digitally. Wylie helped found the firm.

"Increasingly, politics is driven by digital analytics and these kind of predictive processes," Larsen told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

Whistleblower Chris Wylie testifying before U.K. parliamentary committee on March 27. He said he believed the British Columbia-based company AggregateIQ had access to data that was inappropriately collected from millions of Facebook users and alleged it had been used to influence the Brexit referendum. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Society-wide conversation

Canadians are far from immune to data analytics for political manipulation, Larsen emphasized.

"This is now baked into our system," he said. "We haven't had a really detailed conversation as a society about what this means, what we want to see in terms of transparency on these issues so we are playing catch up on this."

For Richard Smith, a professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, informed and ongoing consent from tech companies about how people's personal data is being used is key.   

"People imagine they might be getting advertising, I don't think they imagine they would be getting manipulation of the kind that goes into political campaigns," Smith said.

Social media is not all bad though, he said, and can be used to support democratic processes if the proper regulations are in place. 

"Democracy is built on communication technology from the telephone to radio and it's adapted to those new technologies," he said. "I'm hopeful that with careful consideration we can adapt to this and also control it."

With files from The Early Edition.