Cambridge Analytica Bait-and-Switch Was Wrong.
Given Brigade’s work in the political space and the issue polling features we’ve built, I’ve gotten a number of questions this week about our reaction to the Cambridge Analytica news. Simply put, I’m troubled by what Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have done and I think it offers important lessons for everyone in our space. I also want to reaffirm Brigade’s commitment to earning our users’ trust by being transparent and responsible stewards of their personal data.
This week’s news is a reminder that all of us building political apps have a special responsibility to incorporate transparency and trust-building directly into our products. Public trust is the currency of our precious and increasingly fragile democratic institutions. If we are serious about using technology to improve those institutions, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than other app developers.
Brigade’s fundamental brand promise is to empower ordinary voters to organize and act collectively to wield more influence than the mega-donors and special interest groups that dominate our politics today. Fulfilling this promise requires collecting and building on top of a lot of data, some of which is personal information that individual voters share with us. We believe that the onus rests on Brigade to continually earn the right to use the data our users have entrusted us with. Earning that trust means not only being transparent upfront about what information we collect, but also striving to never violate our users’ expectations for how we use it in subsequent experiences (including those still sketched on a whiteboard somewhere in our office).
Brigade intentionally and explicitly presents our brand and our products as social organizing and action-taking tools for the issues and candidates that people care about. When we ask users to share their opinions on issues, we do so in order to connect them to other voters, advocacy organizations, and candidates who are aligned with them on one or more issues. When we prompt users to connect their voter record to their Brigade profile, we do so in order to add legitimacy to their online actions and to ensure we deliver their advocacy to the correct representatives. In these and numerous other examples across our platform, we strive to only collect data that helps us fulfill our mission of empowering voters.
Like everyone who heard the news this week, I was shocked by the brazen bait-and-switch tactic that allowed Cambridge Analytica (via GSR before them) to collect sensitive personal information under the false pretense of a personality quiz. These actions violate the most basic ethical test that any consumer product must pass: user trust. When users share personal data with apps like Brigade, they do so with an expectation about how that data will and will not be used. Any non-obvious use of that data should be spelled out by the developer. In this case, it seems clear to me that the personality test was intentionally deceptive.
This kind of tactic directly undermines trust in not only Cambridge Analytica, but everyone who builds apps, and especially those of us working in the political space. It is extra distressing for those of us who believe that building deeper social experiences around online political engagement can help fulfill the Internet’s potential to make our democracy more participatory, more transparent and more accountable to the public. We firmly believe in the power of social products to connect people and help them work together to take back their democracy. Therefore, we will work even harder to continue to demonstrate that we are worthy of our users’ trust.
To that end, Brigade will take this opportunity to review our existing product experiences and identify places where we can improve how we communicate with our users about the data we collect and how we intend to use it. If you are a Brigade user and you have ideas for what we can do better, we want to hear your thoughts. You can email me personally at email@example.com.
Thank you for using Brigade to more fully participate in our democracy.