Most companies that trade in the sale and manipulation of personal information are private and beholden to few rules other than the bare minimum of those they establish themselves, to avoid scrutiny and be able to say “we told you so” if an angry individual ever comes calling. Even if a consumer is aware their data is being passed around, their ability to control it once it’s out there is virtually nil: if they request it be deleted from one data broker, it can simply be bought back from from one of several gigantic firms that have been storing it, too.
It is an open question what the actual effect of Cambridge Analytica’s work on the presidential election was, and what the outcome might have been without its influence (most references to its “psychographic” profiling in The New York Times’ story are appropriately skeptical). It would be hard to say without a lot more cooperation from the company and Facebook itself. But the leak by one of its researchers is an incredibly rare glimpse into a fairly routine process in an industry that is so staggeringly enormous and influential, not just in politics but in our personal, day-to-day existence, that it’s difficult to believe that it is anything but a mistake. But it isn’t, and wasn’t, a mistake. It is how things happened and are still happening every day.