Byte back: Navigating the cyber race

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Words: Tess Hardy (she/her) 

In October of last year, the British Library fell victim to a cyber-attack and user data was stolen, harvested, and auctioned off on the dark web for a starting price of £600,000. The library refused to pay and was left with no WiFi, no computer access, no website, and no phone lines, and they are still grappling with the waves of consequence. The hacker gang Rhysida is thought to be behind the attack: a ransomware-as-a-service group, meaning clients pay for the group to target a victim of their choice. The attack highlights a new vulnerability that many of us have never acknowledged: our data. 

Gradually, the value of online data collection has become a trillion-dollar-a-year industry. While the global oil market was worth about $1.7 trillion in 2019, the following year left this figure eclipsed by the global data market which valued at about $3 trillion in 2020. As the world moves online, our data becomes our identity. You might think that the platforms are the commodity: Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat.

But you’re wrong. Data is the world’s most coveted commodity and thus, we are the product.  

The concept of data is a tricky one to wrap our heads around. Every second we spend online, buckets of our cyber information are spilled into the web, cloud, or whatever non-threatening metaphor you choose to use. These data points come together to form something of a digital footprint which can be used by buyers to form a predictive algorithm. So, contrary to popular opinion, your phone isn’t listening to you saying you want to go on holiday or that you want a new pair of docs. The magical apparition of ads suggesting cheap flights to Malaga or Doc Martens on sale are not quite as magic as they seem. The data from our online activity across all our apps is used to create an accurate predictive model of our behaviour, all of which is explained in excessively convoluted language in font size 3 T&Cs that we accept without the bat of an eyelid. The algorithm knows you and is one step ahead. You’re just that predictable, bitch! 

Hyper-targeted ads may seem rather unthreatening, with the only tangible consequences being felt by your bank account (my overdraft is screaming!). However this isn’t the whole truth. Data, although it seems like it only has online consequences, could be sending us further and further into the Matrix hand-in-hand with Keanu. We saw this with Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 US Election and later in the Brexit Campaign in 2018. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm specialising in using data to push their client’s political campaigns. Alexander Nix, the father of Cambridge Analytica, claimed to have 5000 data points on every US Voter. When helping push Trump into presidency, Cambridge Analytica didn’t target every US Voter (a problem that safely lies 25-or-so years ahead of us, fingers crossed), instead, they used data to build a psychological profile and then target persuadable voters through psychographic online microtargeting. A mouthful, I know. To fall into the category of ‘persuadable’ you must fulfil one of the Big Five personality profiles: agreeable, open to new experiences, extroverted, neurotic, or conscientious. Psychological researchers have shown that the things we “like” on platforms like Facebook can be used to predict our personality traits. Like + Cat meme = agreeable. 

So, follow the programme:

  1. Find persuadable personalities through psychographic microtargeting based on data profiles
  2. Send them advertisements like fake Facebook ads 
  3. Then you’ve made just enough change to sway the polls in your favour

Project Alamo, the online division of the Trump campaign under the direction of Cambridge Analytica, spent around $1M a day on Facebook ads, pushing the “Crooked Hillary” narrative. Fake news was used again for the Brexit agenda following Analytica’s (short-lived) success. 

Yes, it is rather gloomy and dark. But before you run off and delete every social media account you have ever made and change every password in the hopes that you will remain off-grid forever, let me relay some reassuring news. What Cambridge Analytica highlighted through their ability to incite real political change was the need for data rights to be covered by human rights (in the meantime, all that was sacrificed was modern democracy). We need transparency with how our data is being used because it is our property. Data rights are human rights. In this tempest of data advances, navigating this 3D digital chess board depends on our defences. We can prosper as a computer chip in the digital age through an education on data rights and restrictions. 

Technology can make a huge difference and will for many years to come, but it’s how we let it define us that is the big question. So, before you gobble up those  cookies or accept those privacy policies, take a moment to pause. Google is free, use it to educate yourself. Brittney Kaizer (, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, saw the light and is now a data rights activist working with the UK Parliament to improve our data rights. 

The battle against cyberware is a long and arduous one. Take Dave Carrol. Following Cambridge Analytica’s bragging about data stealing for Trump, he embarked on the quest to retrieve his data and is still engaged in the legal battle. Cambridge Analytica was the lightning rod for a confluence of feelings about Trump’s election, Facebook, Brexit and the rising use of data modelling as psychological warfare. But it is bigger than just Cambridge Analytica. That big bad wolf may be gone but there are others out there and we must make it through the woods, red cape and all. 

Carrol won’t stop until he gets his data back because it means more than just him,

“All I want is everything, because I’m entitled to it. And so is everyone.”


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