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Tue 20 October 2020
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Tom Scott on how new revelations about voter suppression in the US raise urgent questions about psychographic targeting of UK voters and plans to strip citizens of data protection rights

The UK government issued a curious press release a few days ago to announce that the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, had been disqualified as a company director for seven years for offering “shady political services”. These included “bribery or honey trap stings, voter disengagement campaigns, obtaining information to discredit political opponents and spreading information anonymously in political campaigns”.

Tactfully, the release didn’t mention Cambridge Analytica’s key role in the Brexit referendum campaign, or that a sister company of Cambridge Analytica, AIQ, was paid by Dominic Cummings and Vote Leave to target UK voters, placing 1.5 billion ads on their Facebook pages in the days leading up to the 2016 referendum.

Were voter suppression tactics used by Brexit campaigners and perhaps also in Boris Johnson’s 2019 election campaign?

Many of these ads – which were entirely invisible to the Electoral Commission – contained outright disinformation about the EU. Cummings himself has boasted about how they swung the result for Leave.

Nor did the government’s press release mention the fact that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had met with Nix as Foreign Secretary in 2016 – a meeting whose purpose Johnson has claimed he “can’t remember”, though Fraser Nelson of the Spectator has reported that it was “to try to learn about, and improve links with, Team Trump”. Just the sort of thing anyone might forget.


AI-Generated Voter Suppression

The connection between Team Trump and Cambridge Analytica was indeed intimate, as has been underlined by Channel Four News reports this week of the way that Nix’s company helped the Donald Trump presidential campaign suppress the black vote in key marginal states during the 2016 presidential election campaign. 

Significantly, the DCMS committee took evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s pitch to Leave.EU had included the offer of targeted voter suppression techniques.

Leaked data from Trump’s campaign team reveals how millions of black citizens were profiled as likely Democrat voters, with the help of software – and, it seems certain, illegally obtained Facebook datasets – supplied by Cambridge Analytica. They were then subjected to micro-targeted Facebook ads designed to instil distrust of Hillary Clinton.

The object was not to encourage them to vote for Trump but to deter them from voting altogether. And in states such as Wisconsin and Georgia, this appears to have been highly effective: in many predominantly black wards, voter turnout in November 2016 was around 20% lower than in the presidential race four years earlier. In an extremely narrow race, this was to prove a decisive factor.

There has been already been substantial fallout from Channel Four’s revelations in the US, with many African Americans outraged to learn how Trump’s campaign had actively sought to disenfranchise black communities. There may well be legal consequences for members of Team Trump, too – not least for Brad Parscale, who had acted as digital media director for Trump’s 2016 campaign and was overall campaign manager for his 2020 presidential bid until July 2020. 

Parscale had testified under oath to a Congressional committee that he had not participated in efforts to suppress the black vote in 2016, a statement now shown to be false. He is already in legal hot water, having been detained earlier this week following an armed stand-off with Florida police, called by his bruised and battered wife. 

It’s not clear whether Parscale, a long-term Trump family associate, knew that the Channel Four News story was about to break, or whether this may have contributed to his agitated state. But reverberations from the story may well reach higher still. The overall architect of Trump’s digital campaign was Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and it was Kushner, along with Parscale and the now jailed Trump-Russia felon Paul Manafort, who invited Cambridge Analytica to work on Trump’s presidential bid.


The Vote Leave Connection to Cambridge Analytica

In the UK, these revelations should prompt urgent questions not just about exactly what services were provided by Cambridge Analytica and associated companies to Brexit campaigners, but also about the increasing vulnerability of the democratic process to manipulation by unscrupulous digital operatives.

As Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings spent 98% of his campaign budget on digital advertising and voter targeting. In fact, he overspent on Vote Leave’s legally allowed budget by illicitly funnelling £675,000 through BeLeave, another pro-Brexit group.

Altogether, Cambridge Analytica’s Canadian sister company AIQ took payments of nearly £3,657,000 from Vote Leave and associated campaign groups. Correspondence seen by former Labour MP Ian Lucas indicates that Vote Leave frontmen Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were well aware of this illegal overspending.

The bulk of this money went to AIQ, which as Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie has described, was set up “to service SCL and Cambridge Analytica projects” (SCL is Cambridge Analytica’s parent company). AIQ used software and datasets supplied by Cambridge Analytica, the “shady political services” provider set up by far-right guru Steve Bannon and presided over by smooth-talking Old Etonian Alexander Nix.

In March 2018, data breach specialist Chris Vickery was able to gain access to an insecurely guarded online data warehouse set up by AIQ, giving insights into the range of digital tools used by the company and showing its hand-in-glove relationship with Cambridge Analytica.

Vickery described what he found to Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee set up to investigate disinformation and fake news: “a set of sophisticated applications, data management programs, advertising trackers, and information databases that collectively could be used to target and influence individuals through a variety of methods, including automated phone calls, emails, political websites, volunteer canvassing, and Facebook ads”.

Vickery also gave the committee a diagram that clearly laid out the relationships between AIQ, Cambridge Analytica and the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

(Source: Final Report of DCMS Committee Investigation into Disinformation and Fake News, 2019)

Cambridge Analytica and Leave EU

The DCMS Committee report strongly suggests that AIQ used Facebook data illicitly  acquired by psychometric specialist Dr Alexander Kogan and sold on to Cambridge Analytica to target voters in both the US and the UK:

“AIQ had the capability to use the data scraped by Dr Kogan […] Dr Kogan’s data also included UK citizens’ data and the question arises whether this was used during the EU referendum. We know from Facebook that data matching Dr Kogan’s was found in the data used by AIQ’s leave campaign audience files. Facebook believe that this is a coincidence, or, in the words of Mike Schroepfer, CTO of Facebook, an ‘effectively random chance’. It is not known whether the Kogan data was destroyed by AIQ.”

But Vote Leave was not the only Brexit campaign group assisted by Cambridge Analytica or associated companies.

Nix has boasted about how his company “supercharged” Leave.EU’s  Brexit campaign, a claim backed up by former Cambridge Analytica insider Brittany Kaiser. Kaiser was even on the speaker platform at Leave.EU’s launch in November 2015, where she was introduced in glowing terms by campaign frontman Richard Tice: “We have Brittany Kaiser from Cambridge Analytica, a world leader in target-voter messaging using specialist non-traditional techniques.”

Later, in their contradictory evidence to the DCMS Committee, both Nix and Arron Banks of Leave.EU attempted to deny Cambridge Analytica’s involvement.

Significantly, the DCMS committee took evidence that Cambridge Analytica’s pitch to Leave.EU had included the offer of targeted voter suppression techniques. This, as Brittany Kaiser has testified, was an absolutely standard part of Nix’s pitch – she even recorded him making it to a prospective client. Asked during this pitch about the company’s work on Brexit, Nix replies: “We don’t talk about that.” To which Kaiser adds, ironically: “Oops – we won!”


Water Under the Bridge?

Were voter suppression tactics used by Brexit campaigners and perhaps also in Boris Johnson’s 2019 election campaign? Some of the ads microtargeted on UK voters by AIQ suggest strongly that they were indeed used in 2016. Many of these were not designed to enthuse people with the idea that Brexit would bring any positive benefits, but rather to fill them with fear and distrust of the European Union.

Voters known to be concerned with animal welfare, for instance, were shown ads suggesting (falsely) that the EU endorses bull-fighting, while those concerned about the environment – a group that might otherwise be seen as likely to support EU membership – were told that “the EU stops us speaking up to protect polar bears”. The aim seems to have been to undermine any inclination such individuals might have felt to go out and vote for continued EU membership. 

All of this is much more than water under the bridge. Alexander Nix may be barred as a company director – having allegedly taken $8 million out of the company shortly before it filed for insolvency –  but the people who worked for Cambridge Analytica and AIQ are still working on political campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic, using the same set of psychographic targeting techniques and the same, or enhanced, datasets. 

And the people who employed these companies to use their dark arts on US and UK voters have faced virtually no consequences. In fact, Dominic Cummings now exercises unprecedented powers as Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser.

Disturbingly, Cummings is now reported to be using these powers to advance a scheme to remove the data protection rights currently enjoyed by UK citizens under the European Union’s general data protection regulation (GDPR). 


Cummings’ Data Grab

GDPR is widely seen as the current gold standard in data privacy and it offers the best available legal means to protect voters from illicit data-gathering and microtargeting of the sort used by Cambridge Analytica and AIQ.

It was GDPR that enabled US citizen Professor David Carroll to sue Cambridge Analytica to obtain the personal data that it held on him, and it was the company’s refusal to hand it over that led to a successful prosecution by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.

Carroll never managed to obtain his data from Cambridge Analytica before the company collapsed, having wiped the hard drives that would have contained it. But this week, Channel Four News was able to show him his individual data file from the Team Trump leak – one of some 200 million such files it had built up on US citizens.

It contained an astonishingly detailed profile, including everything from the car he drives and the investments he’s made to his reading, internet browsing habits and the charities he donates to. This was accompanied by a psychographic profile assessing personality traits such as conscientiousness, neuroticism, extroversion and openness. Carroll was in no doubt that this had been assembled using data and tools provided by Cambridge Analytica. It was the information he had been seeking for four years.

We should be in no doubt that similar files exist for many millions of UK citizens, and as Professor Carroll told Channel Four News: “Every voter has a right to see this.”

If Dominic Cummings gets his way, it is unlikely that voters will be able to assert any such right in future. For digital surveillance and voter manipulation specialists, ‘democracy dies in darkness’ is not so much a warning as an aspiration.


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