Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced and now closed political-consulting firm that got caught staging a heist of tens of millions of Facebook users’ data, now looks to be suffering a final indignity: being seen as not that special of a villain after all.
Two days after the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office released a lengthy report that found Cambridge Analytica’s work did not influence the Brexit referendum, one of that British firm’s foremost American critics argued that Cambridge’s death was meaningless because the underlying privacy problem remains very much alive.
David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York, made this case by walking an online audience through his own Cambridge Analytica file—for which he pursued a legal case in the U.K. with only partial success before investigators for Britain’s Channel 4 News found his details in a massive stash of leaked Cambridge data.
As viewers of Carroll’s talk Wednesday at the TEDxMidAtlantic online conference saw, most of this was other people’s work—bits harvested by third-party data brokers and then bought by Cambridge to feed into personality scores for such metrics as neuroticism and conscientiousness.
Carroll, semi-famous for his role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, emphasized three key points about the work Cambridge did for such Republican customers as President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
First, his file wasn’t that comprehensive because of the obvious unlikelihood of a Brooklyn academic voting for Trump—“I was not a targeted voter”—and his own efforts to be “a very privacy-defensive consumer.” Nor was the material collected by such data brokers as Data Trust and Infogroup (now Data Axle) all that accurate.
Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook data didn’t affect the UK’s Brexit referendum as the data related to US rather than British voters, an investigation has concluded.
According to a report from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), parent company SCL and Global Science Research – which obtained the data of Facebook users and their friends through a quiz app – appear to have considered targeting UK voters, but abandoned the idea.
“From my review of the materials recovered by the investigation I have found no further evidence to change my earlier view that SCL/CA were not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK – beyond some initial enquiries made by SCL/CA in relation to UKIP data in the early stages of the referendum process,” writes information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
“This strand of work does not appear to have then been taken forward by SCL/CA.”
The report concludes a three-year investigation that saw Cambridge Analytica’s offices raided in 2018. It had been alleged that, under Russian influence, the companies had attempted to steer the UK into voting to leave the European Union.
The ICO has confirmed that it found evidence of poor data handling practices, with data held in several locations and shared using personal Gmail accounts.
However, it says that Cambridge Analytica did make some efforts to delete the data when asked by Facebook to do so in 2016. Ironically, the company’s claim that it held 5,000 data points on each of 230 million adult Americans turned out to be a big exaggeration.
But as for evidence of Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum, the ICO said it was not qualified to comment, adding that it had already handed over what evidence it had to the National Crime Agency.
“What is clear is that the use of digital