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17 April 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 12:15pm

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is confusing because it’s five stories rolled into one

Former Cambridge Analytica director Brittany Kaiser claimed there was “rife” misuse of data by the Leave.EU campaign.

The Cambridge Analytica story is becoming more and more like that of climate change: we know it’s important, but we also know it’s complex and hard to follow – especially when every new development raises more questions and answers.

Such was the case today, as Brittany Kaiser, a former director of Cambridge Analytica, presented documents to parliament’s Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) committee suggesting there may have been links between the Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, Ukip and also insurance companies owned by the Brexiteer donor Arron Banks.

As ever with this story, each new piece of evidence raises many questions and answers few. Was data shared between Ukip, Banks’s companies, Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica? Others are speculating – without any public evidence – whether the pro-Brexit pub chain Wetherspoons may have shared its customer data, too, in the wake of the chain’s decision to delete its social media accounts. 

Kaiser also suggested that Banks created a data analysis company working with a US university. This has sparked questions about whether UK data was taken and processed in US, possibly in breach of data protection laws. There are still no real answers on how much work, if any, Cambridge Analytica did for Ukip or Leave.EU, work which Banks has long insisted was not requested nor paid for. In comments today, Banks dismissed the fresh allegations as “sheer whoppers”.

This relentless procession of additional questions – absent, to date, of smoking guns – poses a challenge to anyone who wants to get to the bottom of the issues at stake, anyone who wants to improve how our elections work, but especially to the DCMS Committee and its inquiry.

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Part of the problem for both the DCMS Committee and the casual news viewer alike is that the “Cambridge Analytica” scandal is not so much one story as four, or possibly even five following today. Several involve the same figures, and all overlap, but each tackles distinct issues.

They are:

  1. Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook data on up to 87 million predominantly US users via an online quiz, and how that data was used.
  2. Cambridge Analytica’s campaign of dirty tricks and unethical practices in the offline word, predominantly in overseas elections, as boasted of in undercover recordings by Channel 4 News.
  3. Allegations of overspending and coordination in breach of election law by the official Vote Leave campaign and affiliated groups during the Brexit vote.
  4. Fresh allegations of data sharing – possibly in violation of data protection rules – between UKIP, Leave.EU, and companies owned by Arron Banks.
  5. The broader use of data, data harvesting, and microtargeted advertising across Facebook’s platform in elections and other campaigns across the world

Each of these is a complex and significant investigation to get to the root of for authorities, and different bodies are responsible for each. Some are matters for the Electoral Commission, some are governed by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO, the UK’s data watchdog), and some may become matters for police and prosecutors.

This, though, becomes the challenge for the MP Damian Collins and the DCMS Committee he chairs: do the MPs investigating wish to try to tackle all five matters by themselves, and get to the root of each? The risks of chasing all of them together are multiple – for one, they may impede potential criminal investigations, as signalled by former Cambridge Analytica CEO Andrew Nix’s refusal to voluntarily appear before MPs, citing the ICO investigation into his company.

Another risk is that by chasing everything, the committee produces a report which will be incomprehensible to all but the most dedicated follower of the story – and those who believe all five strands of the story connect into an organised and deliberate conspiracy will not be satisfied by any report, however damning, which concludes any less than that.

But the biggest risk is a broad one. The allegations against Cambridge Analytica and the others accused are serious and are due for full investigation. But they are just one part of a huge online ecosystem which could be at risk of undermining confidence in elections and communications across the world.

Cambridge Analytica is just one company among hundreds, if not thousands, exploiting Facebook and other online giants for political and corporate clients. Given their reputation as “charlatans” and “snake oil salesmen”, many of those remaining companies are surely more competent than Cambridge Analytica. Many may be at least as unethical as Cambridge Analytica. There are numerous elections across the world in the coming months and years, with an online environment still ripe for exploitation.

Only concerted action by governments and lawmakers across the world will be able to change that ecosystem, and change the outdated election laws that govern them. The DCMS committee has a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of that work: it should resist other temptations, and instead focus on the future – for all of our sakes.

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