Whistleblowing: Should you ever break with protocol?

Chapter 7 Case Study: Does Big Tech Need More Whistle-Blowers? Facebook and Tesla Face Public Criticism from Insiders

Between 2014 and the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica, a big data political consulting firm chaired by Alexander Nix was founded by Donald Trump’s future campaign strategist, Steve Bannon who acted as vice president of the company for a time. A famous Republican donor, Robert Mercer, invested to help Bannon start the company. The company provided targeted advertising to more than 40 US campaigns in 2014 and provided its services to LeaveEU during the Brexit campaign and most famously to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The company was built on the expertise of Michal Kosinski who researched at the Psychometrics Centre of Cambridge University. Kosinski showed how psychological profiles of users could be formed based on social media activity such as “liking” posts, thus allowing smart, targeted advertising. Targeted advertising is not illegal nor is data gathering per se, but Cambridge Analytica did not acquire its data legally nor with the informed consent of the users.

An app developed by another researcher at Cambridge, Alexander Kogan, called mydigitiallife was advertised to Amazon’s Mechanical Turks and Qualtrics as a personality quiz. The app gave permission to access the users’ Facebook account and gather information from their profile and from their contacts. In fact, the personality quiz was little more than a rouse to obtain data from Facebook activity—including of the users’ contacts—so as to form a personality profile. Over 320,000 people downloaded the app, and information was gathered from, on average, 160 of their friends. Ultimately, the personal data of 80 million Facebook users was collected and used to make psychological profiles. This gathering of data in and of itself was not illegal because Kogan had permission from Facebook to collect such data for academic purposes. However, Kogan sold that data to Cambridge Analytica in a violation of Facebook’s protocols (it is illegal to sell such data to a third party without the permission of the person). From there, Cambridge Analytica made an algorithm to profile even more people for use in elections.

The role that Facebook played became clearer when Christopher Wylie, the employee at Cambridge Analytica who worked on the algorithm, came forward and blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica primarily but also exposed Facebook’s inaction. Facebook initially downplayed the data breach, and Wylie’s recollection indicates that Facebook was well aware of the breach but did very little to rectify the situation. Wylie explained that the only actions Facebook took upon discovering the illegal handling of the data was to have lawyers contact him about the data being obtained illegally and demand that he delete it. He did. Since Wylie gave his public interview, Facebook has suspended Wylie’s Facebook and WhatsApp accounts. Critics say this is retaliation, but Facebook released a statement saying in effect that the suspension is due to Wylie’s admission of misusing user data and that the suspension will be lifted when Wylie talks to Facebook about the data breach.

Tesla is dealing with a situation that can be described as meta-whistle-blowing. Martin Tripp, a former Tesla employee, blew the whistle on what he claimed were unsafe manufacturing practices involving damaged batteries that were placed back on the assembly line. (Tripp released information to Business Insider.) Tripp also alleged environmental malfeasance at factories. Then another Tesla employee from internal security blew the whistle on Tesla’s alleged retaliation of Tripp. Karl Hensen worked on Tesla’s internals security team and alleges that Tesla used devices to intercept communications of employees at work and accessed Mr. Tripp’s phone even after he was no longer working for the company. Hensen maintains that this pattern of spying on employees and former employees coincides with the fact that many members of the security team formerly worked for Uber at a time it was alleged to have engaged in corporate espionage on competitors.

Wylie was unquestionably a whistle-blower for Cambridge Analytica, but how should we understand his role exposing Facebook’s lackadaisical response to the data breach? Was he a whistle-blower? Did Facebook treat him like a whistle-blower? When Wylie came forward, which view of whistle-blowing best explains his intent? Harm-prevention or complicity avoidance?

How would Tripp and Hensen’s whistle-blowing fit into the categories discussed in the chapter? Harm-preventing? Complicity avoiding? The pattern we see in these cases is whistle-blowers going to the media. Does this reveal a problem in organizational structure or a need for government regulation? Why or why not?






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