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Sat 20 July 2019
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The House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s final report on Disinformation and “Fake News” reveals new evidence and calls for new investigations into dark data, dark money and Russian influence in British elections.

The day after Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer revealed Special Counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed Brittany Kaiser, director of the now-defunct data company Cambridge Analytica who worked on Nigel Farage’s Leave EU campaign, this landmark parliamentary report provides yet more evidence that the Trump Campaign, the EU referendum and Russian interference are all closely linked.

“It is now blindingly obvious that we need a criminal investigation – equivalent to the US’ Mueller inquiry”

David Lammy MP

The report also reveals that the National Crime Agency, currently investigating potential illegal foreign funding of major Leave EU donor Arron Banks, has also been asked to look at potential collusion with Russia over data, following evidence submitted to it by the Information Commissioner’s office.

These revelations follow an exclusive report by the Byline Times last week that multiple investigations by the Metropolitan Police, into up to 14 political figures involved in potential election crimes, are currently stalled.

The report will intensify pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to launch a full public inquiry into both dark money and dark data in British elections.

Labour MP David Lammy told the Byline Times that “the scale and depth of malicious disinformation and foreign interference this report uncovers demands an urgent response from the Prime Minister on behalf of the British Government”.

“It is now blindingly obvious that we need a criminal investigation – equivalent to the US’ Mueller inquiry – to investigate any possible links between the 2016 Leave campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russia,” Lammy said.

Russian Influence Operations

The DCMS committee, chaired by conservative MP Damian Collins, has been sitting for two years and has provided the most comprehensive account so far of the impact of Russia’s hybrid warfare on Western democracies and its interaction with the populist movements associated with the Brexit vote in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump six months later.

The July report was more popular in Moscow than in London.

It’s obviously of some concern to the Kremlin. According to the report published today, nearly two-thirds of the views of the interim report, published online last July, were from foreign IP addresses. (The average for most parliamentary publications is only a fifth.) Over half of these foreign views were from Russia. The July report was more popular in Moscow than in London.

Source: Web and Publications Unit, House of Commons

Though the portrayal of Facebook as “digital gangsters” will dominate domestic headlines because of its owner Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to answer the DCMS committee’s many questions, buried in the hundred-page report are more details of malign Russian activity in UK politics.

Had Russia paid for a social media campaign of this scale the committee estimates it would have cost between £1.4 and 4.14 million.

In June last year, the committee quizzed Leave EU founder Arron Banks about the many contacts Leave EU had with Russian officials in the lead-up to the EU Referendum. Today, it provides more detail of the extent of Kremlin intervention.

The committee estimates that the state-controlled channels RT and Sputnik’s pro-Leave websites garnered 134 million potential impressions, nearly five times the reach of the two domestic campaigns combined. (Vote Leave with 33 million impressions and Leave EU with 11 million). Had Russia paid for a social media campaign of this scale the committee estimates it would have cost between £1.4 and 4.14 million.

Moreover, the report reveals how the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed Petersburg-based troll farm indicted for election interference in the US, was simultaneously intervening in British politics, with a marked emphasis on stirring up Islamophobia and racial hatred. It “tried to fuel social divisions, including religious tensions, in the aftermath of the Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park terror attacks”, according to the parliamentary report.

The Kremlin’s attempts to intervene continue. Last October, Twitter closed down 3,613 new Internet Research Agency accounts. A brief analysis of the data reveals these accounts tweeted about Brexit 1,525 times.

But it’s the connection between Russian interference and both UK and US actors which leads the committee to make a stark demand for a full inquiry into the use of dark money and dark data.

Dark Data, Dark Tech

At the heart of both Mueller’s inquiry in the US and the DCMS Committee’s two-year-long investigation in the UK has been the role of Cambridge Analytica, the data company founded by the military contractor, SCL Ltd, and Trump backers Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon.

In 2016, the company boasted about being the key factor in both Britain’s shock vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the presidential campaign.

The report’s findings about the official Vote Leave campaign… suggest even more collusion – both with foreign actors and between the two campaigns.

Since that initial euphoria, and once the Mueller investigation into Russian interference began, the role of Cambridge Analytica in Brexit has been played down. Even though its vice president, Steve Bannon, is a close friend of Nigel Farage, and a director Brittany Kaiser was present at the launch of Farage’s Leave EU campaign in November 2015, Arron Banks – who bankrolled the campaign – has denied ever using the company’s services.

Invoices obtained by Byline and the Observer revealed at least £40,000 of preparatory work was done by the data firm for Banks in early 2016.

But it’s the DCMS report’s findings about the official Vote Leave campaign, fronted by senior conservatives Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, which suggest even more collusion – both with foreign actors and between the two campaigns.

It’s in the shared used of data, voter profiles and targeting strategies that a deeper coordination and joint purpose can be found between the Brexit- backing organisations and the Trump campaign.

At the centre of the allegations is the role of AIQ, a small data company in Canada, which ended up being the main beneficiary the official Vote Leave campaigns spending during the EU Referendum. Chris Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica head of research, claims AIQ was an offshoot of the same UK firm SCL Elections, which would mean both Leave campaigns effectively shared the same online operation.

Though AIQ has denied any formal connection with Cambridge Analytica the committee notes strange anomalies – such as SCL Elections being listed as the contact for at least one AIQ Facebook ad account. It also records the testimony of Jeff Silvester, CEO of AIQ, that roughly 80% of his company’s revenue came from SCL from 2013 until mid-2015.

AIQ worked for a host of Brexit-supporting organisations including the official campaign Vote Leave. Veterans for Britain spent £100,000 on their online ads, BeLeave £625,000 and DUP Vote to Leave £32,000. According to Jeff Silvester, these organisations approached him independently of each other.

The majority of the adverts – 2,529 out of a total of 2,823 AIQ created – were on behalf of Vote Leave which spent just under £3m with the company, mostly in the last few days of the referendum.

However, it’s in the shared used of data, voter profiles and targeting strategies, that a deeper co-ordination and joint purpose can be found
between the Brexit-backing organisations and the Trump campaign.

The DataBase of Truth and Digital Weapons

The source of the DCMS Committee’s explosive findings about AIQ mainly come from Chris Vickery, director of Cyber Risk Research at Upguard who published four papers that explained connections between AIQ, Cambridge Analytica, and SCL, and AIQ’s work during the UK Referendum based on data he had found on an insecure AIQ website. He handed over 20,000 folders and 113,000 files to the committee which suggest a common data set – the DataBase of Truth – shared between employees of the three companies, and also used by Donald Trump’s campaign.

Source: Chris Vickery

Vickery’s evidence has since been handed to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has confirmed AIQ has access to the personal data of UK voters “which they should not continue to hold”. The AIQ database was also shared with a Ukrainian oligarch planning to run for president this year on a more pro-Putin, anti-NATO platform.

Also exposed in the new report is more forensic traces suggesting how Cambridge Analytica worked in close concert with the news website Breitbart.

Previous evidence has shown that the data firm had unique reselling rights to Breitbart’s data, but a newly discovered executable “config” file suggests the coordination of targeting data and news stories was automated by AIQ.

Hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer funded both Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart. Steve Bannon was vice president of the former and executive chairman of the latter before becoming heading Trump’s campaign and entering the White House as his Chief Strategist.

Bannon has described Breitbart as “the platform of the alt-right” and characterised the website as his “weapons”. Since Cambridge Analytica’s special targeting software was classified by the UK Government as a “weapons grade” technology (the Ministry of Defence “had to be told if it was going to be deployed in another country”) the military imagery may not be a metaphor.

Trump’s former National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, awaiting sentencing for various counts of lying to the FBI, was also a consultant to Cambridge Analytica during the Trump campaign. In a speech days after Trump’s win he described the surprise victory as an “insurgency… irregular warfare at it’s finest” run by “an army of digital soldiers”.

Calls for a Full Investigation and New Laws to Protect from Foreign Interference

The report includes a startling update from the National Crime Agency. The NCA revealed late last year that it had launched an investigation into the source of £8m of funds which Arron Banks poured into Nigel Farage’s Leave EU campaign, after a referral from the Electoral Commission that had concluded the money did not come from a permissible UK donor.

But, now it appears it’s not just dark money which is the focus of the NCA investigation. The parliamentary report examines evidence that Russia had access to the Cambridge Analytica database, itself compiled through the hacking of between 50 to 170 million Facebook users, and reveals this has been referred to the NCA by the Information Commissioner Elisabeth Denham.

(Byline Times has asked the NCA whether Russian interference now forms part of its probe and is awaiting a reply.)

The report will also be of interest to the Mueller inquiry and various US congressional investigations into Russian interference in the US, and the many overlaps with UK politics.

The indictment of Trump campaigner Roger Stone revealed his connections with Nigel Farage and his friend Ted Malloch. Dianne Feinstein’s Senate investigation recently subpoenaed Frank Mermoud, an associate of jailed campaigner Paul Manafort who recently signed up as a director of Arron Banks’ security company Precision Risk. Meanwhile, Trump’s inauguration committee, run by a business partner of Leave EU co-founder Richard Tice, is also subject to a new wide-ranging probe by federal prosecutors.

Many of the Mueller indictments flow from US laws about lobbyists registering as agents of foreign principals and political interests, and the DCMS Committee report concludes that Britain needs a “UK version of the US Foreign Agents and Registration Act (FARA)”.

But, the committee goes further, and suggests that Britain needs something like its own Mueller inquiry. The report concludes by calling for an “independent investigation into past elections” – including the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, the Brexit vote and the 2017 general election – “to explore what actually happened with regard to foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation, and the sharing of data, so that appropriate changes to the law can be made and lessons can be learnt for future elections and referenda”.

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