ArticlesEditorial

What Cambridge Analytica Can Teach Us About the 2020 Election

And how to protect yourself from potential influence

As we head into the 2020 presidential election season, one thing is on my mind: How are marketing technologies being used to manipulate voters? In 2016 we saw this with Cambridge Analytica. Four years later, I expect the next version of CA to be even more effective and more prevalent.

If you’re bothered by Cambridge Analytica and related stories about politicians and foreign governments targeting propaganda, troll farms, and fear-mongering, this set of guidelines is for you.

What are the major things you can do to protect yourself as the presidential candidates put forth their campaign platforms? This set of guidelines isn’t completely comprehensive, and they assume some level of technical ability and willingness on your part to alter your habits.

So how did Cambridge Analytica work?

The Cambridge Analytica formula has three main components:

  1. It acquires lots of data on users and analyzes it.
  2. It finds ways to reach these users.
  3. It goes to ad networks to place its message in front of them.

Therefore, to protect ourselves we need to:

  1. Starve the model of data.
  2. Make it harder to be identified across multiple platforms.
  3. Make it hard to directly target us on these platforms.

1. Starve the model of data

Begin with social media. The first step in dealing with a sinking privacy ship is to stop taking on water. You probably have many social accounts. They’re probably several years old and have old, outdated apps authenticated to them. These accounts can be used to siphon off data about you. Let’s clean this up. 

You can do this by revoking access from old apps so they can no longer pull information about you. Here are a few links for some of the more popular accounts.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/settings?tab=applications

Snapchat: https://support.snapchat.com/en-US/a/remove-connected-app

Google: https://myaccount.google.com/permissions?pli=1

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/accounts/login/?next=/accounts/manage_access/

Next, make your profiles less public. This means making them only visible to friends. The goal here is to make it hard for people to scrape* your public profile in mass and build aggregate models where you’re included.

*If you have your profiles set to public, that means anyone can see your profile and build tools dedicated to taking your information, for free, without your permission.

Then move on to your browser, where you’ll want to stop data leaks. Just surfing the web reveals a lot about who you are. Do you read InfoWars or The New York Times? Do you shop on WalMart.com or PaulSmith.com? In aggregate, marketers can use existing adtech (advertising technology) tools to learn a ton about you. And when this is paired with mappings to your other profiles—you can easily be micro-targeted. 

To block tracking, here are some recommendations.

For browsers: 

  • Use Brave or Firefox. Avoid Google Chrome
  • Disable 3rd party cookies in your browser
  • On your phone, install a tracker blocker
  • If you really want to use chrome, install Privacy Badger https://www.eff.org/privacybadger 

Stop Leaks from your ISP

Then you have to stop leaks from your ISP. So get a VPN. The problem is that your ISP can track every web page you go to and sell that information along with your full name to advertisers. It doesn’t matter how much protection you have on your computer, if your traffic is going through their pipes, the ISP can see it.

A VPN is a way to mask all of your traffic so that your ISP cannot spy on you and sell your traffic data. Go with a major provider. One that isn’t free. Below are a few well known options:

2. Make it Hard To Identify You Across Platforms

If someone knows your email address, name, or phone number, they can use services like FullContact to figure out other information about you like your Twitter handle, Facebook profile, LinkedIn, etc. In practice, this means that if someone wants to target you, there are a bunch of ways they can find your other identities online. Opting out of data brokers is super hard. That said, let’s start with a few of the more common ones:

FullContact: https://dashboard.fullcontact.com/claim

Clearbit: https://claim.clearbit.com/claim

Go to each of these services and “claim” your profile. Normally, it’s a poor privacy habit to give companies your email or phone — but they already have it. Sign in using all of your old addresses and delete your profiles.

For more old school data brokers: https://www.stopdatamining.me/opt-out-list/ 

This won’t have any visible impact for you. However, in the future, it will make it harder for people to link your phone number to Facebook, Twitter, Email etc. All of these are platforms where you can be micro-targeted for the purposes of advertising, or to influence an election.

3. Control Who Can Market To You & Target You

Next, we want to make it harder for anyone to target you specifically. This means selecting the most restrictive ad settings where you see ads. What we’re doing is making it so that if someone wants to reach YOU specifically, YOU are harder to reach given your ad preferences. 

These changes won’t break anything or significantly change your experience with the service. You’ll still see ads, but they will be less targeted and less invasive.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ads/preferences/ 

Google: https://adssettings.google.com/authenticated 

Instagram: https://help.instagram.com/1415228085373580

Snapchat: https://support.snapchat.com/en-US/a/advertising-preferences

Now if you want to get really comprehensive beyond social media and Google, you can use this NAI Opt Out tool. NAI is an association that most online ad members are a part of. This covers ads that you see around the web so if you choose to opt out, it’ll be difficult for participating companies to specifically target you with interest-based ads.

Something to Keep in Mind…

None of these recommendations are meant to be perfect and prevent any kind of targeting. There are still thousands of ways people can target you. What following these steps will do is make it harder for companies like Cambridge Analytica to build large models on populations and to micro target you. 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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