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Data harvesting is about more than Facebook: Businesses must adopt ethical digital practices now

You’ve seen it on the news, and your Facebook friend count has probably gone down considerably since the headlines broke, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has laid bare the murky practices of data harvesting and highlighted how your data can be used without you knowing.

The Observer revealed how the British political consulting company used the personal information of more than 50 million Facebook users without authorisation to target and influence them with personalised political advertisements during the 2016 US Presidential election.

In a little over a week, (19/03/18) investigations by The Guardian/Observer, New York Times and Channel 4 have shone a light on how Cambridge Analytica have used this data harvesting practice to try and influence a number of other elections, most notably during the EU referendum in 2016.

Although this is new to the media agenda, Lush has been helping fund organisations fighting companies like Cambridge Analytica since before the scandal hit television screens, and is driving digital innovation and transparency. Here’s how:

How was data harvested?

First for some background, data was collected through an app developed by an academic, which saw thousands of users paid to take a personality test. The users agreed to have their data collected for academic purposes, however, the app also collected the Facebook data of the friends of those taking the test, meaning millions of users’ information was harvested without their permission or knowledge.

Cambridge Analytica has claimed it did not use this data in the work it did during the 2016 Presidential election, but officials from Britain’s data watchdog have since raided the company’s offices. Facebook’s Chief of Security is also said to have resigned since the headlines hit and the company’s founder Mark  Zuckerberg took out ads in Sunday editions of prominent newspapers in apology for the social media network’s part in what he termed a “breach of trust.”

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and Lush

A scandal of this magnitude does not stay unnoticed for long, and suspicion over data harvesting techniques, like those used by Cambridge Analytica, was beginning to mount within the tech world.

In response to these concerns, Lush funded groups who were looking into what has been happening at the company. It has helped fund an investigative documentary made by Fatratfilms, and also helped to fund a court case to get personal data back from Cambridge Analytica’s parent company.

Global head of digital design and creative technology for Lush, Adam Goswell, explains: “Lush funds thousands of charitable projects and organisations each year. Last year we funded a number of groups around internet shutdowns and digital rights.

“More recently we had applications come through from two projects looking at Cambridge Analytica. One is a court case where New York professor David Carroll is taking the company to court to release the data they hold on people. This means they can understand what information they have and what it is used for.

“The other is a documentary from a company called Fatratflims, who are investigating Cambridge Analytica. We are working with them to see if we can get that film out on our platforms and if there’s anything we can do to help them.”

He continues: “It’s quite coincidental that we were funding these groups before the whole scandal blew up. We have talked about it internally for quite some time now, but it is only recently that people have realised it is true and bigger than we had imagined.

“We will find out far more about other companies. I’m certain that among the big players there is going to be data misuse or harvesting in some way.”

How does Lush fit in?

Lush is more than just a cosmetics company, it leads the ethical fight across numerous fronts. Just like its approach to sourcing ingredients and testing products, Lush believes in continuously challenging norms and driving best practice when it comes to business ethics. One of those key principles is the ethical use of data and technology - and there are three aspects to this.

Lush embraces open-source technologies in everything it designs, builds and releases, this means it is made available for use or modification by other users and developers.

The second is the ethical sourcing of hardware, meaning Lush uses conflict free material, as well as renewable and sustainable energy.

It also believes in the ethical use of data, so all the information Lush has is secure and used in a transparent way. This is something Lush was championing prior to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and hopes others will follow.

Adam said: “Data harvesting as a thing is not new at all, companies and brands do it on some level. It’s not unique to this, it’s just a powerful example of how it has been used to influence elections.

“The people who are holding the data and using it have to be ethically transparent about what they are doing.”

“In terms of Lush, we are working on our ethical data policy, which is our approach to the data we hold. That data might be about customers, it might be about staff, it might be about suppliers.

“It will be to ensure that our policy, our approach and our thinking is transparent and as ethical as we can go with it. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has accelerated that thinking, so we are in a better place with data and its usage.”

What does Lush do with its data?

Cambridge Analytica boasts on its website that it “uses data to change audience behaviour”. There is a vast amount of information about the public online now and this scandal documented the murky practices that can  happen when it is used inappropriately.

It can, however, be used in a responsible and ethical way to enhance consumer experience. Lush does collect customers data, as do most brands, but it is committed to using this in a clear and transparent way.

Adam said: “Compared to other large e-commerce retailers we don’t do a lot with the data. We hold customer accounts, so when someone orders a product the customer can see their account history and get the experience they would expect from a shopping site. 

“We also collect anonymised website data for Google Analytics, so we track users but not individuals. That helps us build a better experience and adjust our site accordingly. It’s quite common. It helps us to see how products are performing, make improvements and grow product ranges. We do a similar thing with heat mapping so you can see where people are clicking on the site, that’s also anonymised.

“We don’t target individuals like Cambridge Analytica have done. We look at broad trends.”

So should companies be allowed to hold data on you? Adam believes it all comes down to individual preference.

“It should be in the users’ control. They should say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whether companies can have their data. If it’s a no, then there should be no data passed at all, and that’s fine. If it’s a yes, then that’s lovely and companies should say ‘here’s what we are going to do with your data. It’s about being clear about what data is held and for what purpose”

Lush’s part in fighting against unethical digital practices is not an anomaly. The company is increasingly part of the tech community, providing open source solutions where before only monopolies existed. This is in line with a company ethos that aims to give more than it takes, act transparently, push innovation and raise industry standards. Find out more about Lush policies here.

Comment (1)
1 Comment

about 2 years ago

So would Lush consider leaving Facebook to be more ethical ?