The information commissioner is to investigate whether citizens’ data was used illegally by the Leave.eu campaign ahead of the Brexit vote
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has confirmed it is investigating the use of large-scale data analytics to target voters following the reported use of such techniques by the Leave campaign in the run-up to the EU referendum vote.
The ICO said it had contacted US data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica following a report in The Observer that it advised the successful campaign to sway voters to leave the EU.
“We have concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s reported use of personal data and we are in contact with the organisation,” the ICO said.
The data-protection watchdog said it is also looking into the broader use of data analytics techniques to influence public opinion and how they capture and use citizens’ data.
“We are conducting a wide assessment of the data-protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes, and will be contacting a range of organisations,” the ICO said. “We intend to publicise our findings later this year.”
Cambridge Analytica, with offices in London, New York and Washington, DC, uses data gathered from commercial and public sources, as well as customised quizzes and surveys, to build detailed behavioural profiles of users and their political inclinations.
The company, which counts president Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon as a former board member and is reportedly part-owned by US billionaire Robert Mercer, who helped fund Trump’s election campaign, claims to have played an influential role in the US presidential election by identifying swing voters.
The Observer reported that it had helped to shape the Leave campaign’s social media strategy at the behest of Mercer, a friend of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, citing Leave.eu communications director Andy Wigmore and other sources.
A now-deleted November 2015 announcement on the Leave.eu website said the campaign would be working with Cambridge Analytica, and the company’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, reportedly said in February 2016 that the company had helped to “supercharge” Leave’s social media campaign.
Wigmore confirmed on Monday that Cambridge Analytica provided initial guidance for the campaign’s data-analytics tools, which were then developed independently.
But the company denied contributing to the campaign.
“Cambridge Analytica did not do any paid or unpaid work for the Leave.eu campaign,” the firm said in a statement. “In 2015 the company was in discussions to potentially work with them. That work did not go ahead.”
Any involvement by the company would be problematic as it was reportedly not declared to the Electoral Commission.
Social media data
Leave.eu’s campaign reportedly involved gathering publicly available data from millions of Facebook user profiles, such as “likes” of its Facebook page, and using the data to create advertisements personalised for particular individuals.
The use of such data for campaign purposes is permitted in the US, but in the UK and the EU it requires explicit consent by those involved. Cambridge Analytica’s advice to Leave.eu specifically involved ways to target voters via Facebook, according to The Observer.
Cambridge Analytica denied using data from Facebook, and Facebook said it had not found anything suggesting wrongdoing with regard to the firm’s involvement in the Trump and Leave.eu campaigns.
“We are in touch with the ICO, and are happy to demonstrate that we are completely compliant with UK and EU data law,” Cambridge Analytica stated.
The reports arrive amidst growing concern over the use of digital media to influence public opinion, including the deliberate spread of misinformation during the US election campaign, with organisations including Microsoft, Facebook and Google recently agreeing to take action against false news reports.
What do you know about the new US President Donald Trump and his relationship with technology? Try our quiz!