A behavioral marketing company, Cambridge Analytica, was behind much of the Trump campaign’s online success. They’ve been credited with playing a major role in Brexit, and some say they may be one of the key factors behind Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton. They’re majority-owned by Robert Mercer, the billionaire credited with funding the rise of the alt-right. At one point, infamous Breitbart architect Steve Bannon sat on the board.
Cambridge Analytica boasts about having “thousands” of data points on the majority of Americans, which it uses to predict online behavior and target ads. Fake news ads were directly targeted to swing state voters at a rate that far exceeded the rate of such ads elsewhere, for example. If you’re an American and you’re politically active on Facebook, they probably have a file on you. Curious about what, exactly, they do with that data? You’re not the only one.
David Carroll, a professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York, has been wondering the same thing. Even better – he may have found a way to figure it out. That’s because Cambridge Analytica was originally developed by a contracting company for the British military, and shares staff to this day. More important, they share an office, in London.
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That means Cambridge Analytica is subject to British laws governing data privacy, and Britain’s laws are much more stringent than U.S. laws.
The Guardian has more:
‘Naik says: “It’s this fascinating situation because when it became apparent that Cambridge Analytica had processed Americans’ data in Britain, it suddenly opened up this window of opportunity. In the US, Americans have almost no rights over their data whatsoever, but the data protection framework is set up in such a way that it doesn’t matter where people are: it matters where the data is processed.”‘
‘As an academic, Carroll had studied advertising, data and design, but he was still shocked when Cambridge Analytica eventually sent him a “profile” that it had created about him though not the data it was created from. “It was very strange and unsettling because they had given me ‘scores’ for different issues but I had no idea what they’d based this on.” The company scored him 3/10 on “Gun Rights Importance”, 7/10 on “National Security Importance” and “unlikely” to vote Republican.
‘“I was perplexed by it. I started thinking, ‘Have I had conversations about gun rights on Facebook? Where are they getting this from? And what are they doing with it?’” He reported the firm to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, which is investigating the use of data in political campaigning; he has also launched a CrowdJustice campaign and is appealing to the public to help him take the case as far as he can through the British courts.
He goes on to point out that SCL, the contractor Cambridge Analytica is associated with, is also a military company. Not everything they do is associated with voting.
This case is asking some very interesting questions about rights and privacy in the digital age. Just how much can companies collect and store without your consent? What should it be used for, and who should it be sold to? This is a landmark case in many ways, and will have consequences far beyond Britain. The future of what “privacy” means on the internet may very well partially rest on this case.
Here’s a short video from Cambridge explaining, in their own words, what it is they do: