Cambridge Analytica - the company at the centre of a controversy over how it allegedly uses Facebook data and underhand tactics to undermine democratic elections - is also waiting to hear whether the Information Commissioner’s Office will have a warrant approved to search its offices and servers.
Two reports out in the past few days - one by the Observer/Guardian and the other by Channel 4 News - have highlighted how Cambridge Analytica and its executive team mine Facebook data to influence voter behaviour, by creating highly targeted, emotive campaigns on social media.
It’s a complex story, but Channel 4 News secretly filmed Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, as saying that the company does a lot more than “deep digging” and added that one way to target an individual was to "offer them a deal that's too good to be true and make sure that's video recorded". He also made reference to being able to “send some girls around to the candidate’s house”.
UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is investigating the company over claims it used personal data to influence the US election.
Christopher Wylie, who worked with the company, told the Observer that it amassed the data of millions of people through a personality quiz on Facebook called This is Your Digital Life that was created by an academic.
Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have explicitly told MPs on the DCMS Select Committee that not personal Facebook data has been used to influence voter behaviour. Given evidence has emerged that this is not the case, Damian Collins, chair of the Committee, has told the House of Commons that “they will be” brought back in front of the Committee to explain themselves and the apparent “false evidence”.
The government’s response
This is one of the most critical stories of our time, considering that Cambridge Analytica has played a role in the recent US elections and allegedly the leave campaign for the EU referendum. It also reportedly has ties to Russia.
For example, if it’s proven that Cambridge Analytica used illegal tactics to influence voter behaviour in both the US election and the EU referendum in the UK, what does that say about democracy in this digital age and what will it mean for the outcome of both?
Secretary of State for DCMS, Matt Hancock, answered questions this week in the House of Commons from MPs that are rightly very concerned about the role of data, underhand tactics used by private companies and the role of social media to influence democratic outcomes.
I’d argue that the government should be vigorously investigating right now the impact of Cambridge Analytica on UK democracy, given that come March 2019 it may well be too late - Hancock states that the government is remaining “vigilant”.
However, questions also remain about the powers of the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has had to publicly declare that it has applied for a warrant from the courts to search Cambridge Analytica, raising concerns that this will give them time to cover up any evidence.
UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she was using all the powers she had under the law but would not know whether evidence had been tampered with until her team of forensic experts gained access to the offices.
Hancock told MPs that the investigation is considering how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK have used people’s personal information to micro-target voters. As part of the investigation, the commissioner is looking at whether Facebook data was acquired and used illegally. He said that Denham has already issued 12 information notices to a range of organisations, using powers under the Data Protection Act 1998.
Hancock pointed to the forthcoming Data Protection Bill, which is currently going through the Houses before being put into law, as a reassurance that such investigations will be made easier in the future. He said:
The Data Protection Bill, currently in Committee, will strengthen legislation around data protection and give her tougher powers to ensure that organisations comply. The Bill gives her the powers to levy significant fines for malpractice, of up to 4% of global turnover, on organisations that block the investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office. It will enhance control, transparency and security of data for people and businesses across the country.
However, Hancock added that Denham has requested more powers. He said:
Because of the lessons learned in this investigation and the difficulties the Information Commissioner has had in getting appropriate engagement from the organisations involved, she has recently requested yet stronger enforcement powers.
The power of compulsory audit is already in the Bill, and she has proposed additional criminal sanctions. She has also made the case that it has become clear that, in order to deal with complex investigations such as these, the power to compel testimony from individuals is now needed. We are considering those new proposals, and I have no doubt that the House will consider that as the Bill passes through the House.
Damian Collins MP, chair of the DCMS Select Committee, has said that “this incident shows that someone in this country needs to have the legal authority to go behind the curtain and look at the way in which the tech platforms and other companies that use data are using that data, to make sure they comply with UK data protection law”. He’s implying that the warrant being sought from the caught is to slow and too public.
However, Hancock was keen to keep the social media giants on side, adding “social media are a good thing, so we must not leap to the wrong conclusions and shut down all access”.
But he also quickly added that “the wild west of digital companies that flout rules and think that the best thing to do is move fast and break things, without thought for the impact on democracy and society, is over”.
Andy Wigmore, who was director of communications for Leave.EU has described the services provided by Cambridge Analytica as “our most potent weapon” in the referendum. When asked about Cambridge Analytica’s influence over the EU referendum, Hancock said:
We have not seen any evidence of the impact of these things calling into question the outcome of any electoral event, whether an election or the referendum. What we need to do is make sure that these investigations take their course.
Finally, a question put forward by Chi Onwurah MP, who is Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and notable for being one of the few MPs with a background in engineering, asked Hancock why her calls for a review of data sharing and abuse have not been answered, given the recent revelations. She said:
The Secretary of State knows that I have long called for a comprehensive forward-looking review of data sharing and abuse, so that our citizens can have the data rights they deserve. The Data Protection Bill does not achieve that. It does not define property rights or market power in data, or algorithmic abuse.
Facebook is on the wrong side of history on this and its share price is crashing as a result of the great work of the journalist Carole Cadwalladr. Will the Secretary of State take action or go down as the last dinosaur in an age of data ethics?
Hancock’s reply won’t be of comfort to many, stating that the forthcoming legislation will suffice. He said:
Few Governments are doing more to get the rules right in this space. The Data Protection Bill has a full suite of data protection provisions, including the GDPR from European law, to give people power over their data and consent about how it is used. I recommend that the hon. Lady read the Bill and get on board. If she has specific improvements to suggest, we are willing, as we have been throughout the passage of the Bill, to listen and consider them, as we have done with the proposals made by the Information Commissioner and the Select Committee, because we want to ensure that we get the legislation right.
This is a complicated story, one that is relying on proper investigative journalism from those with the resources. Kudos to the Guardian and Channel 4 News. That being said, the impression given by the government is that it is scrambling to understand the implications - possibly because it isn’t yet sure who will have blood on their hands at the end of it? If it emerges that Cambridge Analytica played a significant, and underhand role, in the EU referendum, for example, what does that mean for Brexit, democracy in the UK and the current leading politicians?
This is something that should be investigated now and something that should be investigated vigorously - it is fundamental to citizen trust in democracy. It’s clear that legislation isn’t keeping up and that’s also something that needs to be addressed. Chi Onwurah’s point about the Data Protection Bill not taking into consideration property rights or market power in data, or algorithmic abuse is a valid one and Hancock’s response is embarrassingly dismissive. This is fundamental stuff and there should be cross-party collaboration to get this right, it’s core to the future success of democracy.