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Tue 20 October 2020
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Former MP Ian Lucas scrutinises a recent letter from the Information Commissioner that addresses the links between Cambridge Analytica and the pro-Brexit campaigns

The story of Brexit is notable for its complexity, lending itself to easy misrepresentation. Much took place this week.

As the US Presidential Election approaches, the UK Information Commissioner (ICO) finally confirmed that, during the 2016 Presidential Election campaign, unlawfully obtained Facebook data was used to support Donald Trump’s election. As we all know, the dramatic seizure of documents and computers from Cambridge Analytica’s offices in March 2018 revealed this malpractice to the world.

In the ICO’s words, Cambridge Analytica was purchasing data at that time, “to combine… with the Facebook derived insight information they had obtained from an academic at Cambridge University, Dr Aleksander Kogan.” This “information” on not just Facebook users, but “friends” of Facebook users was used without adequate consent of voters.

But this was not the headline you read this week.

Instead, the news was that the ICO had found no connection between Cambridge Analytica and the Leave campaigns during the 2016 EU Referendum.

In fact, those who have followed this labyrinthine story know this was not an allegation that informed inquirers had ever made; even if it was a valid question that had been asked by some. The misreporting this week has been extensive, with various pro-Brexit figures spinning the story to make it seem as though there was no question of wrongdoing whatsoever.

The first thing to note is this was not an official ‘ICO Report’. What was published on 2 October was a long, but limited in scope, letter from the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, responding to a letter from the Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Sub-Committee on Disinformation, written on 10 September, 2020.

The Sub-Committee wanted to know what had happened to a report which its predecessor Sub-Committee – of which I was a member – was promised by the ICO back in April 2019. Denham’s letter was therefore narrow, neglecting many matters linked to more recent issues with data targeting – the recent Channel 4 News report on the Trump campaign’s attempts to deter African-American voters from going to the polls, for example.


Contradicting Canada

It is correct that the letter answers some specific questions raised by the Sub-Committee, but mainly relating not to Cambridge Analytica, but to another analytics company, Aggregate IQ, that had worked with Cambridge Analytica in America, and for multiple pro-Brexit campaigns.

However, the ICO’s investigation seems shallow, seemingly accepting the testimony presented by the company.

This is despite the Canadian Privacy Commission, where Aggregate IQ is based, being highly critical of the firm. The Canadian regulator found that, in respect of Vote Leave personal information used by AIQ in the Brexit campaign, “there is not adequate consent to cover AIQ’s disclosure of personal information to Facebook either for the purpose of advertising to those individuals (via ‘custom audiences’) or for the purpose of analysing their traits and characteristics in order to locate and target others like them (via ‘lookalike audiences’).”

Does the ICO agree that there was inadequate consent for the use of personal information on Facebook by Vote Leave in the Brexit campaign? We are not told.

If yes, why is no action proposed by the ICO? The matter is left hanging.

Ultimately, the core question remains: why has the ICO failed to produce a comprehensive report as was originally promised to the Sub-Committee? Of course, the politically-charged environment of Autumn 2019 presaged a UK general election featuring Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings – all leading players in Vote Leave. But an independent regulator should not be shy of reporting, as promised, to a House of Commons Select Committee.

Along with the House of Commons report on Russian interference, this information was not placed before the electorate prior to the general election.


The Firewall

Next, the ICO acknowledges that “initial information provided by Facebook had suggested that there were three audiences that were used for targeting by both Vote Leave and BeLeave.”

However, the ICO now says it accepts AIQ’s word that this was “an admin error” and generally accepts AIQ’s word that its “firewall policy prohibited the sharing of data between campaigns”. The ICO provides no explanation of why multiple pro-Brexit campaigns – Vote Leave, BeLeave, the DUP and Veterans for Britain – all chose to use AIQ for their digital campaigns.

Though the letter from Elizabeth Denham says that the ICO has “shared the learning from this investigation with election oversight and privacy regulators internationally,” curiously, a footnote to the recent US Senate Committee says that the ICO did not release this information to it. There is no reference to this in the ICO letter.

Numerous questions arise from Denham’s letter. Hopefully, some will be answered when she gives evidence to the Select Committee later this autumn.

Ian Lucas is the former Labour MP for Wrexham and former member of the DCMS Sub-Committee on Disinformation


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