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 campaign techniques are a permanent fixture of our elections and the wider democratic process and will only continue to grow in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic is only likely to accelerate this process as political parties and campaigns seek to engage with voters in a safe and socially distanced way,” says Denham.
“New technologies enable political parties and others to engage with a broad range of communities and hard to reach groups in a way that cannot be done through traditional campaigning methods alone. But for this to be successful, citizens need to have trust in how their data is being used to engage with them.”