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UK Information Commissioner confirms Cambridge Analytica was a storm in a teacup

The supposed scandal around the data analytics supplied to campaign groups by Cambridge Analytica was manufactured by people with a political agenda.

When the story broke in March 2018 it seemed, on the surface, to be a big deal. The campaigns for both the UK leaving the EU and for Donald Trump in the US general election, both of which were victorious in 2016, only succeeded by cheating. They allegedly used illegally obtained data on the UK and US populations to target the gullible electorate with their underhand propaganda.

Almost immediately, however, it became clear to any objective observer that the whole thing was overblown, with the core allegation of electoral fraud consisting of nothing more than the kind of targeted advertising endemic to the internet era. The only claim of substance was that Facebook had insufficiently safeguarded its user data in allowing access to third-party apps.

Now the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has published the findings of its three-year investigation (predating the scandal) into the matter, which concluded there was no illegal electoral interference whatsoever.

“…we concluded that SCL/CA [SCL Elections and its subsidiary Cambridge Analytica] were purchasing significant volumes of commercially available personal data (at one estimate over 130 billion data points), in the main about millions of US voters, to combine it with the Facebook derived insight information they had obtained from an academic at Cambridge University, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, and elsewhere,” wrote UK Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham.

“In the main their models were also built from ‘off the shelf’ analytical tools and there was evidence that their own staff were concerned about some of the public statements the leadership of the company were making about their impact and influence.”

In other words, the data was commercially available and concerned US voters. The only ‘special sauce’ in CA’s model was the hyperbole of its sales people. The Brexit angle turned out to be a complete red herring. “From my review of the materials recovered by the investigation I have found no further evidence to change my earlier view that SCL/CA were not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK,” wrote Denham

Apart from a cursory shrug about the Russian conspiracy theories that have been so popular among opponents of Brexit and Trump, and a bit of tutting about Kogan’s attitudes towards data security, that’s it. Cambridge Analytica, it turns out, was guilty of nothing more than exaggerating its own significance and being in the wrong place at the wrong time when sore losers were clutching at straws.

Even the fines handed out by the ICO had little to do with the ‘scandal’. Yes, Facebook was fined for its sloppy data protection, but Vote Leave was punished for sending unsolicited text messages and, similarly, Leave.EU was fined for sending unsolicited emails. Hilariously the only political party found to have its hands dirty was the Labour Party, which bought the illegally collected private data of over a million people.

So an exhaustive investigation has concluded the Leave and Trump campaigns did absolutely nothing wrong. Whether CA’s data had any affect on the outcomes of the Brexit referendum of the US general election is irrelevant as it’s just fine to use legally obtained data in marketing campaigns. In fact, you’d be stupid not to.

The supposed whisteblower, on which reports of the non-scandal were entirely reliant, was strangely muted at time of writing. The same can’t be said of activist journalist Carole Cadwalladr, whose professional fortunes were massively boosted by her reporting on the matter. She seems to be sticking with the standard anti-democratic playbook of seeking to invalidate the whole process when you’re unhappy with the outcome. Stay classy Carole.


8 comments

  1. Avatar Anon 08/10/2020 @ 3:26 pm

    The ICO declined to investigate traffic linked to a source with a Russian IP address which is puzzling for an ‘exhaustive investigation’.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 08/10/2020 @ 4:28 pm

      The Ruskies must’ve paid them to look the other way, eh?

  2. Avatar Joshua 08/10/2020 @ 4:30 pm

    I am a bit lost. Are we talking about telecom news or politics here? To be honest, this is not the content I was expecting to read on telecoms.com.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 08/10/2020 @ 4:45 pm

      Sometimes they overlap Josh.

  3. Avatar Klaus M. Körmendi 09/10/2020 @ 1:59 pm

    Dear Sir,
    Thank you for some clear-headed thinking. That is needed more than ever.
    best regards

  4. Avatar Peter Smith 11/10/2020 @ 9:57 am

    An author and commentator can, of course, have a political slant on news, but to completely turn the Information Commissioner’s report’s finding up-side-down has to be considered a lie. Vote Leave and Leave.UK were given fines for their abuse of data law, and Cambridge Analytica only avoided being given a hefty fine by going out of business. And Facebook has been given a fine that maxed out what the commission could levy. To say, there’s nothing to see here, is just not true. Not clear-headed thinking, but ignoring the facts.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 12/10/2020 @ 9:02 am

      From the piece: “Even the fines handed out by the ICO had little to do with the ‘scandal’. Yes, Facebook was fined for its sloppy data protection, but Vote Leave was punished for sending unsolicited text messages and, similarly, Leave.EU was fined for sending unsolicited emails. Hilariously the only political party found to have its hands dirty was the Labour Party, which bought the illegally collected private data of over a million people.”

  5. Avatar Sheila Coombes 20/10/2020 @ 11:30 am

    So the premise is that two elections were decided by a percentage of the population who are on Facebook, the lesser percentage who use facebook for political information, the lesser subset who actually saw a political ad. and within that subset a much lesser percentage those who subscribed to the political ad’s content. Out of all my friends only two regularly use facebook and that’s for social issues and family photo sharing, if they would be swayed by anything it would be by print and broadcast media where people like Carole Codswallop are given full reign to spout their rubbish. Could it be that the British people voted for Brexit of their own volition and likewise American citizens with regard to Trump’s election? Oh no, it must have been Mr Putin!

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