Feinstein in the News
By John Wildermuth
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The news that the personal data of some 50 million Facebook users may have been used to boost Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has California politicians roaring that something must be done, but solutions are in short supply.
On Saturday, the New York Times and the Observer of London published the results of a joint investigation that found that Cambridge Analytica, a political research firm that worked with the Trump campaign, had taken the information a psychologist had obtained from Facebook and morphed it into a potential political tool.
“I’m very troubled by reports that Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign used private Facebook data to manipulate the 2016 election,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement Tuesday. She also called for Facebook “to testify about how the company protects user privacy and what steps it’s taking to combat bad actors.”
How exactly Congress could go about preventing similar incidents is a question without instant answers, said San Jose Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren.
“I have many concerns about this, both in terms of what happened and the reaction of” Facebook, she said in an interview. But when it comes to setting rules on the use of data taken from social media and other online sources, “I don’t know that we (in Congress) have the tremendous expertise to do this, in all honesty.”
The problem is that political data mining is a growth industry, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a company that provides voter information to campaigns.
Cambridge Analytica “was doing something that’s done every day in political campaigns, using available information to target voters for the likelihood of who they will vote for,” he said. “No one thinks anything about it when they get a piece of political mail with their name and address on it.”
“It’s more than just targeting people because they click ‘Like’ on the Democratic Party,” Mitchell said.
But while campaigns at all levels may be shuffling through voters’ online data every day, the current dispute takes data-mining concerns to a new level. Cambridge Analytica was founded by Steve Bannon, a former top aide to Trump, and Robert Mercer, a wealthy GOP donor, worked closely with the Trump campaign and obtained data from Facebook, which has an estimated 214 million users in the United States.
That’s more than enough smoke to get Democrats looking for fire.
“The personal information of millions of Americans was exploited,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said in a statement Tuesday. “Facebook and Cambridge Analytica leaders must appear in front of Congress to take responsibility, explain how this happened and help ensure it never happens again.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wants to hear testimony from Cambridge Analytica about how it obtained the Facebook data and how it was used.
“It may be that through Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign made use of illegitimately acquired data on millions of Americans to help sway the election,” Schiff said in a statement Monday.
In an MSNBC interview Monday, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont suggested that companies could move toward the more restrictive European privacy and data protection rules, which make it tougher to sell and obtain personal information.
When people now download many applications, “you are basically consenting to have your data used,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know they were consenting to that. We could have more affirmative consent.”
While Cambridge Analytica is a London company, the Menlo Park-based Facebook is a major political player, both nationally and in California. The $11.5 million it spent on Washington, D.C., lobbying in 2017 and the $806,000 it gave to Senate and congressional candidates virtually guarantees the company will have plenty to say about any changes.
According to the campaign finance website OpenSecrets.org, most of Facebook’s California contributions went to Democrats, but Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, received $10,000, behind only the $10,400 received by Lofgren and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
But any decisions by Congress about how to deal with questions of data-mining and online privacy aren’t likely to happen in a hurry, Lofgren, the San Jose congresswoman, warned.
“I don’t know what changes need to be made and whether Congress can make them,” she said. “But I do know we have to have that discussion.”