Information is power. It gravitates toward those who are able to contain the flow of information. Whistleblowers disrupt that power dynamic, redistributing the power outward toward those groups and individuals who care deeply about the subject matter of the disclosures.
Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica data scientist, is the perfect example of an employee whose revelations about his company’s activities are having global consequences because of their potential to dismantle the corrupt status quo. Like most other whistleblowers, Wylie refuses to think of himself as a hero even though he is one. He instead has admitted that he is responsible for developing the technology that allowed his company to steal the private information of about 87 million Facebook users, and then with that stolen data devise devious and false messages to key voters on behalf of Trump, a handful of Republican senators, and the referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. When asked why he was blowing the whistle, Wylie responded that he was acting out of contrition for his previous participation in the theft of data from unsuspecting Facebook users.
The shockwave from Wylie’s act of conscience was heard around the world. He instantly became a key witness in public hearings before the British Parliament. Thirty-seven U.S. state attorneys general wrote the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) demanding action. The FTC launched an investigation into this obvious breach of the 2011 consent decree that Facebook signed to settle the legal action that the FTC had brought against the company for failing to safeguard the privacy of its members.
The sleepy FTC now belatedly seems headed toward the enforcement action that the public interest organization Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) had sought in 2009, which led to the consent decree. EPIC and other privacy protection advocates have long urged the FTC to take action against Facebook for numerous alleged violations of the consent decree, all prior to Wylie’s smoking gun evidence of Facebook’s cavalier and disinterested attitude toward its members.
Of course, Facebook was aware of Cambridge Analytica’s data theft as early as 2015. In fact, it had already determined 87 million Facebook users were swept up in this colossal invasion of privacy. Wylie’s estimate of 50 million victims of privacy violations was too conservative. Facebook sat on the information, never intending to notify its members, the FTC, or anyone else of the breach.
While Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook, was spending many hours testifying before Congressional committees, the Facebook stock stopped plummeting. In fact, it is estimated that during the course of his testimony, he saw the value of his holdings increase by $3 billion, no doubt a record. According to some financial analysts, the recovery had less to do with what Zuckerberg said and more to do with the softball questions and lack of outrage on the part of most of the questioners. In other words, it became clear that Congress most likely does not intend to craft new regulatory laws requiring social media giants to abide by their privacy promises.
Great Britain and several other European nations are not as likely to forgive these broken promises. In Europe, citizens seem to care much more about privacy matters and will likely demand regulatory action to rein in abuses. Throughout the world, the power has shifted somewhat because of the information that Wylie has shared. There is a heightened awareness about how easy it is for companies such as Cambridge Analytica to undermine democracy using social media data mining.
If U.S. citizens do not take action, they will lose out on an opportunity to preserve their privacy, enforce the promises that social media companies have made to them, and ensure that foreign actors can never again engage in criminal activities to influence its elections.
Whistleblowers are catalysts for reform. Their information is power as long as those most affected by the revelations take action. We have Chris Wylie to thank for letting us know what was done during our elections to sway voters with disinformation by foreign agents and who allowed this to happen despite promises to protect our privacy. It is up to each of us to ensure that we exercise the power that we now have to demand the reforms that will ensure that never again we as a nation allow such abuses to recur.
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