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Emma Briant on Cambridge Analytica investigation: it seems shoved under the carpet


The Information Commissioner's Office is not going to publish any more reports on the major Cambridge Analytica–Facebook data breach. Scholar Emma Briant, famous for her insights and work on the topic, was slightly shocked by the news. To her, it seems that the investigation has been shoved under the carpet.

It’s been two years since the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data breach that might have affected up to 87 million people. Yet besides a fine from British regulators, public outrage, and Elon Musk leaving Facebook, there seems to be no punitive consequences for those who abused the data of tens of millions of people.

Just recently, The Times reported that Julian Wheatland, who steered Cambridge Analytica through its final few months after the departure of its founder Alexander Nix, was named as the chief executive of Cornerstone Brands.

Scholar Emma Briant told CyberNews that people involved in the scandal are still using the same psychographic techniques to target neurotic people for political purposes.

“This is a time of great fear, division, and protests. People are suffering greatly from mental health conditions. You don’t have to have a particular psychological problem to be feeling stressed at the moment. It's a frightening time,” scholar Emma Briant told CyberNews.

ICO will not publish any more reports

Cambridge Analytica harvested tens of millions of Facebook users' data (presumably 87 million people might have been affected) without their consent and later used that data for political advertising.

This was the biggest data leak in Facebook's history. Yet it seems to have no punitive consequences for the people who abused the data. 

Cambridge Analytica assisted Ted Cruz in the primaries in 2016 and worked at the behest of Donald Trump during the elections. It was also hired by the Independence Party in the UK for the Leave EU campaign.

The data that was collected helped to build psychological profiles of users and target the neurotic ones by adding more drama to the ads.

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is one of the institutions that investigated the Cambridge Analytica data breach. It fined Facebook £500,000 and was set to release a final report about this particular data breach. Yet, as Emma Briant has found out, the ICO is not going to publish any more reports on this topic.

“I am writing to confirm that the investigation into SCL and Cambridge Analytica has now concluded. You asked if the ICO will be publishing another report into this matter. I can confirm that no further reports are intended to be published aside from those that already exist on the ICO’s website,” reads a letter that Emma Briant received from the ICO.

Emma Briant tweet screenshot

As a CyberNews journalist has learned from the ICO, this is indeed true.

An ICO spokesperson said: “As part of the conclusion to our data analytics investigation we will be writing to the DCMS select committee to answer the outstanding questions from April 2019. We have committed to updating the select committee on our final findings but this will not be in the form of a further report.”

Emma Briant, who is famous for her works on propaganda, and Cambridge Analytica in particular, was slightly shocked by the news from the ICO. CyberNews discussed with Emma Briant the outcomes of the Cambridge Analytica–Facebook scandal, and data that Emma believes is still widely abused as elections in the US are approaching.

She is almost finished with her book Propaganda Machine: Inside Cambridge Analytica and the Digital Influence Industry. Emma Briant was also a Senior Researcher for the Netflix film The Great Hack.

Two years ago Facebook was fined £500,000 by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in the UK. There were some updates last year, and we were expecting a final report from the ICO. But, as I understand, that is not going to happen? They ditched the final report? 

I found out recently that the investigation by this important body that oversees data law was dropped at the Information Commissioner’s discretion - no announcement, no explanation. This has important implications globally for other investigations such as the US as the ICO were investigating Cambridge Analytica servers only they have.

In July 2019, the UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham announced that a future report would follow. We don’t know why she stopped it, it’s speculative at the moment. However, journalists should be questioning whether recent changes prompted this move. Before the recess in parliament, the ICO was put under the control of Michael Gove. He is a client of AggregateIQ, a CA partner. He is not somebody I would consider to be free of conflicts of interests there. That is very concerning.

Don’t forget this is a very controversial inquiry. Brexit is going ahead, Gove was part of the Vote Leave campaign, may have known about the wrongdoing,  and we have a lot of people in government who would like to see the inquiry go away. 

I’m yet to get a response from the ICO after my email requesting answers. What we know is that the commissioner Elizabeth Denham will be answering some questions to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee later this month. We don’t have any exact date yet. 

But we really need to find out what’s going on. Did Michael Gove probably have any influence over the direction of the investigation or ICO funding and so forth?  I doubt we are going to hear this from Elizabeth Denham in parliament, but I hope she will report fully on an investigation that is important to millions of people around the world.

Was there a due date for the ICO’s report?

It was meant to be autumn 2019. It became very clear that wasn’t going to come out before the general election in the UK because it would have obviously been seen as political. So we were waiting for it to come out after the elections, and now I’ve realized it has been stopped, and they are not planning to give us answers without a fight. It is really troubling.

One of the things that concerns me most is the fact that in America the Senate Intelligence Committee also needed access to those servers. The US investigators need access to Cambridge Analytica communications and other things that were on those servers in order to investigate and prevent future threats to the 2020 election. And the US Senate report in the United States says that they basically couldn’t get this crucial access. This is very strange given the close intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and the UK.

The Senate report was otherwise damning on collusion and Trump's compromises with Russia. And it’s pretty damning. So if they had got more of the Cambridge Analytica servers and the communications, I think we would know a lot more. It’s worrying, it seems shoved under the carpet.

Apart from the ICO, what other authorities are still investigating the Cambridge Analytica case?

I think that the US inquiry is still ongoing (FBI and Justice Department - CyberNews). The FEC (Federal Election Commission) was still investigating. The thing is they are all very quiet until they come up with the report. Which is great as long as they are going to do that. All of the different inquiries are looking into different things. And the ICO inquiry is probably the most crucial because they have the servers. And that data is what everyone else needs to do what they are doing. If it’s not being shared and if that has just been closed, this contains the answers to really crucial questions like why the data was accessed from Russia, for instance? They haven’t got to the bottom of that.

There’s a lot of questions that the United States has in particular. There’s a lot of meddling in other countries that has not been uncovered yet. There are people around the world who don’t even know that their data was messed with by Cambridge Analytica. 

It might also enlighten what is going on with respect to Russia but also with the respect to the US government. The Trump campaign is accessing a lot of data, it seems to be collected with an app that was developed with the help of Cambridge Analytica. It would be good to know particularly since people that were former Cambridge Analytica staff are working on Trump’s campaign still. Large numbers of vulnerable Americans data is being repurposed for politics - church recruitment and mental health support counselling, addiction recovery, all kinds of things. Incredibly sensitive data on people who have, for instance, addictions to opioids, and this is being repurposed for political campaigns.

So you are saying that this harvested data of tens of millions of people might still be used for political campaigns? The data is still out there?

I don’t know if the Facebook data is being used. But the modelling based on the original app is being used for microtargeting. This is also mispurposing people’s health data. This is really major in the United States for politics. People do not know that these churches that they belong to are giving their data away; the churches may not know that the data is being repurposed. This is going to be a really big scandal. 

ICO has access to a big database of information about what Cambridge Analytica were doing then they were developing this app which ran in parallel and it’s still being used by a company that was a client to and partner of Cambridge Analytica. We need to know what data is out there and how it might be accessed. 

Besides the fine from the ICO, the #deletefacebook campaign and the fact that Elon Musk deleted his and Space X’s profiles on Facebook, what were the consequences? Has anyone been punished for the data abuse?

They got fined by the ICO. But they were all getting away with it. They are all doing business still. In the United States, Alexander Nix and Aleksandr Kogan were fined a very small fine a short while ago. This is just pathetic. The EU also fined Facebook – there were a number of actions that were taken. But none of them are fully punitive, and it’s not stopping people from working, nothing is being done to address the problem of how the influence industry reproduces itself.

Currently, SCL (Cambridge Analytica’s parent company), its staff, their directors and so on, are still working around the world. They just ignore the investigations and go on with what they were doing. We are allowing them to get away with that.

So it’s been 4 years since the presidential elections in the United States. Americans will be heading to the polls in two months.  Has anything changed during those 4 years? Are you worried the same psychographic techniques will be deployed again?

The film People you may know (filmmakers are Charles Kriel and Kat Gellein, the researcher Brent Allpress discovered the data operation) is coming out this September, it’s going to reveal all of this. The same kind of activities are being used. They are allegedly using psychographic microtargeting again. Cambridge Analytica, the one thing that they found a massive advantage for, is targeting neurotic people and people with emotional instability. These were very effective ads. I’m talking about their internal evaluations. They showed that this was useful and helpful. It would be very surprising for me considering Cambridge Analytica’s staff is allegedly working on the Trump campaign and you’ve got the same tools being utilized through the company that was linked to Cambridge Analytica who helped developed tools. It would be surprising if the targeting of neurotics is not happening. I find this very worrying considering we are in the pandemic. This is a time of great fear, division, and protests. People are suffering greatly with mental health conditions. You don’t have to have a particular psychological problem to be feeling stressed at the moment. It's a frightening time.

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