Yesterday the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham sent a letter to Parliament summarising the ICO’s wide-ranging investigation into Cambridge Analytica (and its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories) and the wider world of data harvesting and targeted political advertising.
This was one of the scandals that gave birth to Fair Vote UK. Trying to protect our democracy from the toxic world it exposed is what drives us everyday.
The letter shines further light on the sorry saga of Cambridge Analytica and the part-incompetent, part-dangerous industry that it existed in (and which by no means has gone away).
In Cambridge Analytica, the Information Commissioner paints a picture of a shoddy outfit with very big aspirations.
What could be a more dangerous combination?
Cambridge Analytica appears to have been:
- Disorganised. ‘My investigation found data in a variety of locations, with little thought for effective security measures.’
- Dishonest. ‘There appeared to be concern internally about the external messaging when set against the reality of their processing.’
- Sneaky. ‘We also identified evidence that in its latter stages Cambridge Analytica was drawing up plans to relocate its data offshore to avoid regulatory scrutiny by the ICO.’
- Ineffective. ‘Strategic Communication Laboratories’s own marketing material claimed they had “Over 5,000 data points per individual on 230 million adult Americans.” Based on what we found it appears that this may have been an exaggeration.’
Despite these myriad flaws (charlatanry has a long history in the world of political data “science”), Cambridge Analytica was able to use the tools made available to them by Facebook to ‘improperly’ acquire the personal data of millions of citizens.
They then used this improperly acquired data to feed machine learning algorithms with the intention of predicting voter behaviour.
Facebook’s complicity in all of this (whether knowledgeable or not) should not be downplayed. They built this terrible system and then sold it to whichever unscrupulous enterprise provided the money.
Does this industry sound like the sort of thing a democracy should tolerate?
While a number of unanswered questions remain, The Information Commissioner’s letter highlighted that the ICO’s investigation has exposed ‘systemic vulnerabilities in our democratic system’. However, it did not go further in detailing what the fixes could be. To be fair, that is not the ICO’s job.
This is a political problem and it will only be solved when voters and politicians decide that it has to be solved.
Our report details what needs to be done.
What are we waiting for?