Very few Kenyans had heard of a company called Cambridge Analytica until last week, when Facebook suspended it from operating on its platform. Cambridge Analytica is the company candidate Donald Trump turned to as its data analytics consultant during the last US elections.
The company has generated interest in Kenya because various media reports claimed that it was also hired to work for the Jubilee Party - in the most recent elections and earlier elections.
Whereas Jubilee has neither confirmed nor denied the reports, consulting a data analytics company for political mobilisation is not only a smart thing to do, but also necessary for any progressive political party.
Any serious political party must therefore revolutionise the way it engages with an increasingly youthful and internet-savvy demographic.
What is currently known as data-driven political mobilisation is actually nothing new. It was originally introduced ten years ago by the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign, and it involves targeting voters with personalised messages in order to influence their choice.
Known as micro targeting, voters' profiles are mined or analysed and algorithms used to generate and serve different political messages based on recipients' differing personalities.
This, incidentally, is a very common practice in digital marketing campaigns.
Rather than getting a blanket advert urging you to buy a beer - when you probably do not drink - you will instead get a differentiated advert urging you to buy coffee, based on you previous online activities.
But we needed that background digression in order to answer the following question: What exactly did Cambridge Analytica do wrong to warrant its suspension from the Facebook platform?
Contrary to misplaced understanding, Cambridge Analytica is not in the business of stealing votes in the traditional sense of the word. Additionally, there is nothing illegal about their micro-targeting techniques, given that they are standard practice in contemporary digital marketing.
In a candid interview, Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower and an ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica, explains how the company illegally harvested user profiles from Facebook accounts and subsequently mined it to generate and serve politically misleading or fake news.
Cambridge Analytica paid American Facebook users between $5 to $20 to take an online psychological test, purportedly designed to report back your psychological profile and scores.
However, behind the scenes as the user took the test, Cambridge Analytica's software would be harvesting the profiles and digital history of all the other accounts that the particular user is connected or is a 'friend' to.
DATA PROTECTION LAWS
In other words, Cambridge Analytica would use the paid user's Facebook account to illegally gain access to 50 or 100 other Facebook accounts that were connected to that single user taking the psychology test.
In countries that have established data protection laws, this is totally unacceptable. Users must explicitly be asked and explicitly agree to have their data harvested.
In addition, whoever is collecting the data must explain the purpose of collecting it and demonstrate regularly how the collector's security procedures have ensured that user data is safe and not shared with third parties.
In other words, Facebook's suspension of Cambridge Analytica had nothing to do with the very misleading political messages generated, commonly known as fake news. It had more to do with the fact that Facebook users' profiles were harvested without their knowledge and consent.
This turn of events is very instructive and an urgent reminder for Kenya to quickly get its data protection law into place.
The author is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.