'Cambridge Analytica did not misuse data in EU referendum', says watchdog


The data watchdog has closed its investigation into Cambridge Analytica, concluding that the controversial data company did not directly misuse data to influence the Brexit referendum.

Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, said her team also found no evidence Cambridge Analytica aided Russian intervention in the UK political process. However, she warned that the company’s data protection practices were lax “with little thought for effective security measures” and its activities raised broader concerns about the influence of technology in politics.

Cambridge Analytica had repeatedly claimed in its marketing material to have “5,000+ data points per individual on 230 million adult Americans”, suggesting it had incredible power to micro-target individuals with suggestive political messaging using a giant psychographic database.

However, the investigation concluded that “based on what we found it appears that this may have been an exaggeration” and much of the company’s activities followed “well recognised processes using commonly available technology”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office spent three years investigating the company, which collapsed in 2018. Cambridge Analytica’s downfall led to a global debate on the use of data targeting in politics and a reckoning for major technology companies who were pilloried by governments around the world, prompting the introduction of restrictions on political advertising on major social media platforms.

Denham said her team analysed 42 computers, 700 terabytes of data, 31 servers, and more than 300,000 documents as part of their investigation into potential data offences. In a letter to MPs she said that although there was no evidence of law breaches to justify enforcement action, Cambridge Analytica’s activities “confirms my earlier conclusion that there are systemic vulnerabilities in our democratic systems”.

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Denham said she found no evidence that Cambridge Analytica were actively involved in the EU referendum campaign, beyond an early proposal to work with UKIP which was not put into action. The successful Vote Leave campaign, run by Dominic Cummings, instead employed the services of AggregateIQ, a Canadian data targeting company which had historic links to Cambridge Analytica.

Last month Cambridge Analytica founder Alexander Nix was disqualified from acting as a company director for seven years for “offering potentially unethical services to prospective clients” including bribery or honey trap stings, voter disengagement campaigns, obtaining information to discredit political opponents, and spreading information anonymously in political campaigns.

Cambridge Analytica’s sister company SCL Elections has already been fined £18,000 for failing to comply with a request for personal data filed by US academic David Carroll. He wanted to obtain information on how he may have been targeted by Republican campaigners using the company’s services during the 2016 presidential election.

As part of its investigations the ICO also handed down a £500,000 fine to Facebook and smaller penalties to both Vote Leave and Leave.EU.



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