A Cambridge Analytica-style AI scandal is coming
The blistering pace of development means data protection regulators must be prepared for another scandal like Cambridge Analytica, says Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the EU’s data watchdog.
Wiewiórowski is the European Data Protection Supervisor, and he is a powerful figure. Its role is to hold the EU accountable for its own data protection practices, monitor the cutting edge of technology and help coordinate enforcement within the Union. I spoke with him about the lessons we should learn from the past decade in technology and what Americans need to understand about the EU’s data protection philosophy. Here’s what he had to say.
What tech companies should learn: These products should have privacy features built in from the start. However, “it’s not easy to convince companies that they need to adopt privacy-by-design models when they need to deliver very quickly,” he says. Cambridge Analytica remains the best lesson in what can happen if companies cut corners on data protection, says Wiewiórowski. The company, which became one of Facebook’s biggest advertising scandals, had scraped the personal data of tens of millions of Americans from their Facebook accounts in an attempt to influence their vote. It’s only a matter of time before we see another scandal, he adds.
What Americans need to understand about the EU data protection philosophy: “The European approach is linked to the purpose for which you use the data. So when you change the purpose for which the data is being used, and especially if you do so against the information you provide to people, you are breaking the law,” he says. Take Cambridge Analytica. The biggest violation of the law was not that the company collected data, but that it claimed to collect data for scientific purposes and quizzes and then used it for other purposes, mainly to create political profiles of people. This is a point raised by data protection authorities in Italy, who have temporarily banned ChatGPT there. Authorities say OpenAI collected the data it wanted to use illegally and didn’t tell people how it intended to use it.
Does regulation stifle innovation? This is a common statement among technologists. Wiewiórowski says the real question we should ask ourselves is: Are we really sure we want to give companies unrestricted access to our personal data? “I don’t think regulations…really stop innovation. They try to make it more civilized,” he says. After all, the GDPR not only protects personal data, but also trade and the free flow of data across borders.
Big Tech’s Hell on Earth? Europe is not alone in playing hardball with technology. As I reported last week, the White House is considering AI liability rules, and the Federal Trade Commission has even gone so far as to require companies to delete their algorithms and any data that might have be collected and used illegally, as happened to Weight Watchers. in 2022. Wiewiórowski says he is happy to see President Biden calling on tech companies to take more responsibility for the safety of their products and finds it encouraging that American policy thinking is converging with European efforts to prevent AI-related risks and blame companies for damages. “One of the big players in the tech market once said, ‘The definition of hell is European law with American enforcement,’” he says.
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