As U.K. Clamps Down On Cambridge Analytica, Privacy Concerns Span Atlantic

Mar 24, 2018
Originally published on March 24, 2018 7:24 am
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Should companies decide where the line is between privacy and innovation in the digital world? Or should that be up to the government? Those questions are bouncing back and forth between Europe and the United States after revelations that a London data mining firm harvested the personal details of some 50 million Facebook users to try to influence the 2016 presidential election. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from London.

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JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: When an American professor named David Carroll found out a data mining firm based in England had a file on him, he had a lot of questions.

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DAVID CARROLL: How did they get the data? What did they do with it? Who did they share it with? And do we have a right to opt out of this?

KAKISSIS: Carroll filmed this fundraising video to help pay for a legal fight against Cambridge Analytica, the firm that harvested the data of millions of Facebook users.

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KAKISSIS: On Skype from New York, Carroll explained the goal of his legal fight.

CARROLL: I hope that it opens up a national conversation as to how we have left ourselves dangerously unprotected and without rights. And so this really becomes a civil rights issue.

KAKISSIS: He filed his legal request with the U.K.'s information commissioner, who's in charge of data privacy protection. Like the rest of Europe, the U.K. is tough on data protection.

EMILY TAYLOR: So the traditional position has been the U.S. doesn't have privacy laws, and we do. And we're great at privacy, and the U.S. isn't.

KAKISSIS: Emily Taylor is a cyber policy analyst at Chatham House, a London think tank.

TAYLOR: But actually, I think people on both sides of the Atlantic feel the same concerns. They don't like to feel intruded upon. And they don't like to feel lied to.

KAKISSIS: She says American regulators have handled the problem by handing down huge fines to social media companies like Facebook if they're found to mislead consumers. But the EU's justice commissioner, Vera Jourova, says the U.S. is too weak on data breaches. She explained why on Bloomberg TV.

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VERA JOUROVA: In my view, this is not only about data protection breaches. This is about a threat to democracy and individual freedoms of people.

KAKISSIS: The EU will beef up data privacy as part of the General Data Protection Regulation. After these new rules come into effect on May 25, companies must obtain individual consent to gather personal details and explain how information gathered will be used.

Just outside the subway station near London Bridge, I meet Rob Fuller, a 27-year-old public relations consultant.

ROB FULLER: Yeah. I think, like a lot of people of my generation - I'm sort of tied of my phone. So I spend a lot of time using apps, particularly for social media - so Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and that kind of thing, as well as games and other sort of things to pass time.

KAKISSIS: He hasn't removed them since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke earlier this week.

FULLER: You know that Facebook owns a lot of that data, for example. But - yet you're aware of it, but it doesn't necessarily stop you from doing anything.

KAKISSIS: On Friday, a British court granted a warrant to England's data protection watchdog to search Cambridge Analytica's London offices and seize its servers. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.