Another big development in the personal data misuse saga attached to the controversial Trump campaign-linked UK-based political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica — which could lead to fresh light being shed on how the company and its multiple affiliates acquired and processed US citizens’ personal data to build profiles on millions of voters for political targeting purposes.
The company has been ordered to give up all the data it holds on one US academic within 30 days — with the ICO warning that: “Failure to do so is a criminal offence, punishable in the courts by an unlimited fine.”
The notice follows a subject access request (SAR) filed in January last year by US-based academic, David Carroll after he became suspicious about how the company was able to build psychographic profiles of US voters. And while Carroll is not a UK citizen, he discovered his personal data had been processed in the UK — so decided to bring a test case by requesting his personal data under UK law.
Carroll’s complaint, and the ICO’s decision to issue an enforcement notice in support of it, looks to have paved the way for millions of US voters to also ask Cambridge Analytica for their data (the company claimed to have up to 7,000 data points on the entire US electorate, circa 240M people — so just imagine the class action that could be filed here… ).
The Guardian reports that Cambridge Analytica had tried to dismiss Carroll’s argument by claiming he had no more rights “than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of Afghanistan”. The ICO clearly disagrees.
Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group responded to Carroll’s original SAR in March 2017 but he was unimpressed by the partial data they sent him — which ranked his interests on a selection of topics (including gun rights, immigration, healthcare, education and the environment) yet did not explain how the scores had been calculated.
It also listed his likely partisanship and propensity to vote in the 2016 US election — again without explaining how those predictions had been generated.
So Carroll complained to the UK’s data watchdog in September 2017 — which began sending its own letters to CA/SCL, leading to further unsatisfactory responses.
“The company’s reply refused to address the ICO’s questions and incorrectly stated Prof Caroll had no legal entitlement to it because he wasn’t a UK citizen or based in this country. The ICO reiterated this was not legally correct in a letter to SCL the following month,” the ICO writes today. “In November 2017, the company replied, denying that the ICO had any jurisdiction or that Prof Carroll was legally entitled to his data, adding that SCL did “.. not expect to be further harassed with this sort of correspondence”.”
In a strongly worded statement, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham further adds:
The company has consistently refused to co-operate with our investigation into this case and has refused to answer our specific enquiries in relation to the complainant’s personal data — what they had, where they got it from and on what legal basis they held it.
The right to request personal data that an organisation holds about you is a cornerstone right in data protection law and it is important that Professor Carroll, and other members of the public, understand what personal data Cambridge Analytica held and how they analysed it.
We are aware of recent media reports concerning Cambridge Analytica’s future but whether or not the people behind the company decide to fold their operation, a continued refusal to engage with the ICO will potentially breach an Enforcement Notice and that then becomes a criminal matter.
Since mid-March this year, Cambridge Analytica’s name (along with the names of various affiliates) has been all over headlines relating to a major Facebook data misuse scandal, after press reports revealed in granular detail how an app developer had used the social media’s platform’s 2014 API structure to extract and process large amounts of users’ personal data, passing psychometrically modeled scores on US voters to Cambridge Analytica for political targeting.
But Carroll’s curiosity about what data Cambridge Analytica might hold about him predates the scandal blowing up last month. Although journalists had actually raised questions about the company as far back as December 2015 — when the Guardian reported that the company was working for the Ted Cruz campaign, using detailed psychological profiles of voters derived from tens of millions of Facebook users’ data.
Though it was not until last month that Facebook confirmed as many as 87 million users could have had personal data misappropriated.
Carroll, who has studied the Internet ad tech industry as part of his academic work, reckons Facebook is not the sole source of the data in this case, telling the Guardian he expects to find a whole host of other companies are also implicated in this murky data economy where people’s personal information is quietly traded and passed around for highly charged political purposes — bankrolled by billionaires.
“I think we’re going to find that this goes way beyond Facebook and that all sorts of things are being inferred about us and then used for political purposes,” he told the newspaper.
Under mounting political, legal and public pressure, Cambridge Analytica claimed to be shutting down this week — but the move appears more like a rebranding exercise, as parent entity, SCL Group, maintains a sprawling network of companies and linked entities. (Such as one called Emerdata, which was founded in mid-2017 and is listed at the same address as SCL Elections, and has many of the same investors and management as Cambridge Analytica… But presumably hasn’t yet been barred from social media giants’ ad platforms, as its predecessor has.)
Closing one of the entities embroiled in the scandal could also be a tactic to impede ongoing investigations, such as the one by the ICO — as Denham’s statement alludes, by warning that any breach of the enforcement notice could lead to criminal proceedings being brought against the owners and operators of Cambridge Analytica’s parent entity.
In March ICO officials obtained a warrant to enter and search Cambridge Analytica’s London offices, removing documents and computers for examination as part of a wider, year-long investigation into the use of personal data and analytics by political campaigns, parties, social media companies and other commercial actors. And last month the watchdog said 30 organizations — including Facebook — were now part of that investigation.
The Guardian also reports that the ICO has suggested to Cambridge Analytica that if it has difficulties complying with the enforcement notice it should hand over passwords for the servers seized during the March raid on its London office – raising questions about how much data the watchdog has been able to retrieve from the seized servers.
SCL Group’s website contains no obvious contact details beyond a company LinkedIn profile — a link which appears to be defunct. But we reached out to SCL Group’s CEO Nigel Oakes, who has maintained a public LinkedIn presence, to ask if he has any response to the ICO enforcement notice.
Meanwhile Cambridge Analytica continues to use its public Twitter account to distribute a stream of rebuttals and alternative ‘facts’.