Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Digital Data Analytics: Between Technology and Political Power

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Antonius Alexander Tigor[1]

In this complex information age, digital data is power. More specifically, categorized and analyzed digital data is now a highly prized possession in the games of political power. This new realm of power moved center stage during the last US presidential election, which recent revelations involving both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have shockingly demonstrated. Moreover, political candidates in the other parts of the world may also be utilizing similar strategies relating to digital-data analytics. In this context, the proper methods and ethics that apply to analyses of digital data are becoming issues that urgently need to be addressed, as harvested digital data starts to enter political campaigns, both across the globe and in Indonesia in particular.

In the UK, the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) is currently investigating allegations that such uses of data run much deeper than the ongoing Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case. Indeed, the harvesting of personal details has perhaps gone far beyond what many of us thought possible and we are now at the stage where organizations of various kinds are able to utilize digital data in order to implement various types of predictive analytics. This manipulation of digital data may involve social and political organizations, social-media companies, data-analytics companies, political campaigns and political parties.

Massive volumes of digital data, both structured and unstructured, are now produced every single second, and this data saturates the world of business on a daily basis. However, it’s not the overall amount of data or information that is important, rather it’s what organizations do with such digital data or information that ultimately matters. Digital data can be analyzed for insights that can ultimately lead to better decisions and help users with their basic needs, such as healthcare and personal finance. On the other hand, analyzed data may be used more predictively, forecasting daily behavior and calculating political affiliations. The characteristics of digital data are genuinely priceless in this modern era and significant volumes of data, when combined with the velocity of the data stream and a variety of formats, are able to identify vital trends and offer solutions. There are (at least) two primary concerns to take into account when digital data or information is tapped into and used for particular purposes.

First and foremost are the issues of privacy and the use of digital data by organizations in order to generate profit. Organizations now analyze the behavior of their customers or users in order to tailor custom services to them. Utilizing data in this way can prove beneficial and may lead to profits through the introduction of new services and innovations. For example, the enhancement of products based on the buying habits of customers and users, the recalculation of entire risk portfolios in minutes and the assistance of tourists all over the world. This method is suitable for many industries, including banking, e-commerce, retail, manufacturing, healthcare and other sectors of the economy. In this context, the larger the volumes of digital data that an organization holds, the better services or products the customer will ultimately be able to enjoy.

However, problems arise when digital data is gathered without the approval of the data subject or when organizations collect and use personal data without providing enough information to their membership for them to be able to render meaningful consent. For example, German courts have ruled that Facebook’s personal data use and privacy settings are illegal because users are not able to give sufficiently informed consent. As such, Facebook is currently overhauling its privacy terms in order to comply with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The informed consent of data subjects is imperative in order to be able to utilize digital data legally and to assist and make predictions relating to data subjects within the context of particular services or needs.

In the same way, political campaigns employ similar digital-data methods in order to gain valuable information and insights into the habits of voters in a given country. Political candidates may be able to amass more support from voters if they can tap into real grassroots sentiment within a given society based on valid data originating from its citizens. For example, Facebook stores information on what it thinks users might be interested in based on the posts that they like and the subjects that they and their friends discuss. Political campaigns can then categorize this data based on specific political and social issues within a given society, whilst also taking into account areas of concern or current problems for the citizens of specific cities or regions. Such categorized digital data can be used as a near real-time barometer of social and political issues, however, such sensitive information inevitably compromises the privacy of data subjects and should be handled through the application of the highest ethical standards. In Indonesia though, the absence of any comprehensive framework which addresses the issue of data protection presents a significant obstacle in terms of ensuring customer privacy.

A second issue concerns data security and the handling of user data. Significant potential exists for organizations to misuse digital data and it has been alleged that the use of harvested data and the supervision of the third-party use of processed user data has been lax. However, ultimately, any digital data that has been surrendered by an organization’s servers to developers or other third parties can no longer be monitored by said organization. The original organization can thus have no idea what developers ultimately choose to do with the digital data that they obtain. In the European Union, under the GDPR, data controllers and processors are now required to meet a number of specific obligations. However, Indonesia, in contrast, does not have any similar stipulations contained within its current data-protection rules and regulations.

The utilization of analyzed digital data for political purposes without informed consent has impinged upon the right of privacy as it applies to data subjects. On the other hand, political candidates have the right to engage in political campaigning. In this context, the prevailing social understanding of what is deemed to be “politically correct” thus becomes of vital importance. Many prominent legal scholars who analyze jurisprudence have stated that, “Morality without structure is a mess,” but also that, “Structure without morality is a menace”. Both morality and structure are needed in order to create a comprehensive legal framework that is able to adequately address the thorny issue of data protection without limiting the huge positive potential that digital-data analytics hold for businesses and society in general. In essence, currently at stake are the transparency and accountability of digital data brokers on the one hand, and the right of data subjects to control their digital destinies on the other.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of


[1] The writer is a Legal Technology Expert, LL.M in Computer and Communications Law and Chevening Alumni at the School of Law, Queen Mary University of London.

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