More than a year ago, after putting in a formal request, I received a letter and an Excel spreadsheet purporting to contain my voter profile from an obscure analytics company called Cambridge Analytica. Seeing my political beliefs modeled without my knowledge or permission was unnerving. But the detail that caused me the greatest distress was the currency I used to pay the request fee: British pounds. Why was American voter data being processed in Britain?
About a year later, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica from its network—preempting a massive investigation that revealed that Cambridge Analytica had purloined millions of Facebook profiles for political purposes, using a deceptive personality quiz. That same day, I filed a legal claim against a network of companies, including Cambridge Analytica, in the High Court in London for failing to comply with the UK Data Protection Act of 1998.
David Carroll (@profcarroll) is an associate professor at Parsons School of Design working at the intersection of advertising, data, privacy, politics, and policy.
Since then, most of the firms in the Cambridge Analytica network have filed for insolvency in the UK and bankruptcy in the US—but I am still vigorously pursuing my rights to recapture my complete voter dataset. Before most of the companies shut down, their regulator that enforces data protection laws in Britain, the information commissioner’s office, issued an order to the company to disclose my data, or face criminal penalties. While I was testifying to committees in the EU Parliament in Brussels for their investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica the deadline passed. Criminal prosecution is now being explored.
It may feel overwhelming, but it’s important to pursue any unanswered question that concern elections—even if that activity spans multiple countries, companies, and campaigns. This week, Facebook delivered a tome of responses to questions posed during Senate hearings in April. During his testimony, Zuckerberg dodged many questions with the phrase, “I’ll have my team get back to you,” which he uttered 21 times. The ensuing written questions, so voluminous they numbered more than 2000 across 500 pages, obviously required Facebook’s most expensive and skilled wordsmiths to construct an impressive treatise on its business practices, while evading the most critical questions.
Public investigations happening in the UK and Canada tell a more
revealing and complicated story—one that reporters in the US seem to
Who is Joseph Chancellor, Alexandr Kogan’s business partner and subsequent Facebook employee, curiously hired directly from the company that illicit hoovered up so much personal data? We still don’t know. Why did Mark Zuckerberg not disclose him to Congress, especially when that would have been extremely germane to the subject of the hearing? The documents didn’t explain.
Yet public investigations happening in the UK and Canada tell a more revealing and complicated story—one that reporters in the US seem to be ignoring. A parliamentary committee in Canada is conducting an investigation into AggregateIQ, the British Columbia-based vendor that had an exclusive intellectual property license with SCL Elections Ltd. This company is part of the Robert Mercer-funded, Steve Bannon-operated “election management” network, which also includes Cambridge Analytica, all of which is unraveling as a consequence of headlines around the world. AggregateIQ has been accused by members of Canadian parliament of aiding and abetting crimes of data and technology in the UK and the US. The charge alleges that the company used commercial political advertising, social media, and data brokerage industries across nations to evade the guardrails that protect the institutions of democracy itself.
In the UK, the House of Commons select committee, run by Conservative member Damian Collins, is hosting an aggressive and public inquiry into a number of allegedly criminal data schemes. By taking evidence from a wide cast of characters—including myself when they came to Washington, DC—the UK’s investigation has released a preponderance of hard evidence into the public domain, allowing us to follow, not only the political drama, but the complexity of the data systems, contracts, emails, proposals, transcripts, and interview recordings.
The UK’s investigation has released a preponderance of hard evidence
into the public domain
This stands in stark contrast to the highly secretive special counsel investigation in the United States, which reportedly is also looking into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. This dark and seemingly despotic world of election management, influence peddling, and voter data analytics is raising fundamental questions about how democratic institutions can survive these new digital threats.
In this way, Americans haven’t yet fully grasped how malfeasance in the Brexit referendum and campaigns in the US might be intertwined in scandal. After walking out of the UK Parliament select committee before the chair had adjourned it, the self-proclaimed Bad Boys of Brexit, Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore now face allegations of regular contact with officials from the Kremlin, along with a court injunction in Mississippi court over their efforts to build a clone of Cambridge Analytica at Ole Miss to profile British citizens.
It’s unprecedented that multiple, simultaneous election irregularity investigations overlap around a single family’s company, the nexus of Cambridge Analytica. For those of us fascinated by the story, this complexity is engrossing, but it’s devilishly confusing for most. At times it feels Cambridge Analytica designed it this way, to overwhelm the capacity of government, media, and citizens. Important details still have not worked their way through the public investigations, including whether or not data crimes have been committed under UK law, or if election coordination violations have occurred under both British and American laws. We’re not even sure if we’ve unmasked all the mysterious companies weaponizing voters’ personal data to advance the will of elites.
But without paying closer attention to what our allies in Great Britain and Canada have uncovered on our behalf, Americans are doing our own democracy a grave disservice. The fact that lawmakers around the world are working so hard to understand the actions of a single family should alarm everyone concerned with the consent of the governed.
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