UK investigation of Cambridge Analytica appears to 'dispel' whistleblower claims

UK investigation of Cambridge Analytica appears to 'dispel' whistleblower claims

Cambridge Analytica became a huge story back in 2018. That’s when the UK company was accused of gathering personal data on Facebook users. But the real concern over Cambridge Analytica was the claim that its micro-targeting of voters had played a role in helping elect Donald Trump, possibly in connection with Russian influence, and in helping pass Brexit in the UK. Here’s a NY Times summary of the scandal from 2018 written by Nick Confessore:

In March, The New York Times, working with The Observer of London and The Guardian, obtained a cache of documents from inside Cambridge Analytica, the data firm principally owned by the right-wing donor Robert Mercer. The documents proved that the firm, where the former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon was a board member, used data improperly obtained from Facebook to build voter profiles. The news put Cambridge under investigation and thrust Facebook into its biggest crisis ever. Here’s a guide to our coverage.

The Times reported that in 2014 contractors and employees of Cambridge Analytica, eager to sell psychological profiles of American voters to political campaigns, acquired the private Facebook data of tens of millions of users — the largest known leak in Facebook history…

What was the Russia link?

In a companion piece, The Times reported that people at Cambridge Analytica and its British affiliate, the SCL Group, were in contact with executives from Lukoil, the Kremlin-linked oil giant, as Cambridge built its Facebook-derived profiles. Lukoil was interested in the ways data was used to target American voters, according to two former company insiders. SCL and Lukoil denied that the talks were political in nature and said the oil giant never became a client…

Anger on both sides of the Atlantic

The articles drew an instant response in Washington, where lawmakers demanded that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, testify before Congress. Democrats looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election — already interested in Cambridge’s role in providing analytics to the Trump campaign — said they would seek an investigation into the leak. They were echoed by lawmakers in Britain investigating Cambridge Analytica’s role in disinformation and the country’s referendum to leave the European Union.

Another look at ‘Brexit’

The Times and The Observer reported allegations that the 2016 “Brexit” campaign used a Cambridge Analytica contractor to help skirt election spending limits. The story implicated two senior advisers to Prime Minister Theresa May. Testifying to Parliament a few days later, a former Cambridge employee, Christopher Wylie, contended that the company helped swing the results in favor of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

There’s more but hopefully you get the idea. CA was seen by some as part of a grand scandal that tied together Brexit, Trump, Russia, Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer and Facebook. It was an explanation for everything that had gone wrong in the world (according to the left) and became a fixation with tech journalists in particular and folks like Rachel Maddow.

Yesterday, a UK investigation into CA came to a close and the findings were, shall we say, somewhat different than the hype:

After more than three years, Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner, has closed her investigation into improper data handling by the SCL and Cambridge Analytica group.

At first glance her findings, which were released on Tuesday, dispel many of the accusations put forward by whistleblowers and digital rights campaigners over the course of 2018.

The most serious of these was that the digital marketing specialist had colluded with Russia to steer the results of the Brexit referendum and broken US campaign rules during the 2016 presidential election. Campaigners had also previously argued the company failed to delete contentious data sourced from Facebook without users’ permission when asked.

Denham told a parliamentary select committee on Friday that “on examination, the methods that SCL were using, were in the main, well recognised processes using commonly available technology”…

The scale of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Leave.EU Brexit campaign is probably the question that has plagued UK digital rights campaigners’ minds most in recent years. But the conclusions from the ICO report are unlikely to be welcomed.

According to the Commissioner, the authority found (our emphasis):

. . . no further evidence to change my earlier view that SCL/CA were not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK — beyond some initial inquiries made by SCL/CA in relation to Ukip data in the early stages of the referendum process. This strand of work does not appear to have then been taken forward by SCL/CA.

The same reporter who wrote that NY Times summary above back in 2018 wrote a thread on Twitter summarizing the new findings. Oops, turns out most of that stuff was commercially available and the tech was pretty much what everyone had:

Also no evidence of any Brexit campaign work or any additional suggestion of Russian involvement:

Author and tech entrepreneur Antonio Garcia Martinez called Confessore’s Twitter thread “revisionist bulls**t.”

He wasn’t the only person flabbergasted by the sudden turnaround. Matt Taibbi said the coverage of CA was of a piece with other big stories in the past four years that turned out to be bogus:

Glenn Greenwald is right about these mistakes always happening in the same direction. We all know why it happens: The media is made up of about 90% progressives. And as much as they try to deny that influences their coverage, it clearly does.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023