The Foreign Office is withholding information about the Prime Minister’s meeting with the defunct data firm in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, Sam Bright reports

The Foreign Office has denied a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from Byline Times, in relation to the meetings held between Boris Johnson, Sir Alan Duncan and the infamous data harvesting firm Cambridge Analytica.

On 8 December 2016, while serving as Foreign Secretary, Johnson held a meeting with Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. According to Government records, the meeting was held “to discuss [the] US political situation”.

A day earlier, Duncan – who was at the time serving as Minister of State for Europe and the Americas – had also met with Nix “to discuss the US election result and build senior contacts with the transition team”.

However, when Johnson was asked in the House of Commons in July 2019 why he met Cambridge Analytica, he responded: “Mr Speaker, I have no idea.” Both Nix and Johnson are Old Etonians.

Byline Times recently submitted a FOI request, asking the Foreign Office for all correspondence, including minutes, related to these two meetings. However, while the department confirmed that it “does hold information” relevant to the request, it has decided to withhold this information due national interest and personal data concerns.

Indeed, the Foreign Office claims that releasing the requested information “could potentially damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and the United States of America” and that “this would reduce the UK Government’s ability to protect and promote UK interests through its relations with the United States of America, which would not be in the public interest”.

It also said that the Government must adhere to the principle that personal data should be processed lawfully, fairly and transparently. “It is the fairness aspect of this principle, which, in our view, would be breached by disclosure,” the response states.

The only information provided by the Government is seemingly a series of emails sent between officials in London and Washington about Duncan’s meeting with Cambridge Analytica on 7 December. However, all the information contained in these messages is redacted, aside from one email saying: “Can you do a quick summary of other points? I’ll do a memory jogger for the Minister ahead of the meeting so that he covers what was discussed. Keywords are fine.”

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A Sordid Tale

It is ironic that the Government is using data protection concerns as a reason to deny releasing information about its meetings with Cambridge Analytica.

The firm, which has now been dissolved, came to international notoriety in 2018 after it was revealed by the Observer that data from 50 million Facebook users had been harvested by the firm without authorisation.

Cambridge Analytica consequently used this vast data bank to build a software programme that could predict and influence choices at the ballot box, through targeted online adverts.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Observer. “And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

The big data firm claimed to possess up to 5,000 data points on more than 230 million Americans, and said that it had worked on more than 200 elections across the globe.

One of these elections was the 2016 US Presidential Election – for which it was paid some $6 million to help the campaign of Ted Cruz, who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump. The firm then switched to the Trump campaign, with its vice president Steve Bannon appointed as Trump’s campaign manager.

It has also been claimed that Cambridge Analytica worked on the pro-Brexit campaign, with Leave.EU’s former communications director Andy Wigmore saying that Cambridge Analytica was “more than happy to help… we shared a lot of information”.

An undercover investigation by Channel 4 in March 2018 then exposed Alexander Nix boasting about seeding pro-Trump messages online through a web of anonymity. “We just put information into the bloodstream to the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape,” he said. “And so this stuff infiltrates the online community and expands but with no branding – so it’s unattributable, untrackable.”

Executives at the firm were also filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers to influence election campaigns.

Although Cambridge Analytica closed its doors in May 2018, many of its senior figures have gone on to work for other firms using data to influence political campaigns. Brad Parscale, the man who hired Cambridge Analytica to work on Trump’s 2016 campaign, was appointed as Trump’s campaign manager during the 2020 re-election contest.

Facebook was fined $5 billion by Federal Trade Commission in America over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and £500,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK (the maximum fine available).

The Times further exposed that an executive at Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm, SCL, had briefed UK Government officials on the use of data in the 2016 Presidential Election – though the details of the meetings between Alexander Nix, Sir Alan Duncan and Boris Johnson have never been revealed.

Byline Times has asked the Foreign Office to review its decision about withholding the information relating to these meetings. This newspaper will report back with further developments.

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