Was Brexit vote interfered with? Cambridge's MP questions Cambridge Analytica's influence on the referendum outcome
New concerns surround timeline of Facebook data harvest
In the wake of revelations that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested 50 million Facebook profiles in a bid to swing the US election, politicians have raised concerns that the 2016 EU referendum could have been similarly interfered with.
Cambridge Analytica, which is based in London and New York, apparently used the services of a Cambridge-based firm, GSR (Global Science Research), in a bid to devise new ways of accessing and analysing social media data. Two of GSR’s directors, Aleksandr Kogan and Joseph Chancellor, were affiliated to the University of Cambridge.
Though their work at GSR has not been linked to their duties at the university, the GSR duo built “psychographic profiles” of voters from 2014 on. By 2017, when GSR’s findings had been incorporated into the presidential election by Cambridge Analytica, their techniques were well-honed. The possibility that these techniques were tested and/or deployed during the 2016 EU referendum has not been refuted.
Mr Chancellor is still apparently a researcher at Facebook. Dr Kogan was described by the university this week as “a senior research associate”.
“This shocking case shows the imbalance between the power of the private tech giants and the ability of democratic societies to protect ourselves,” said Daniel Zeichner MP. “Although the impact on the democratic outcomes of this particular case remains to be confirmed, many will suspect that the results of both the most recent EU referendum and the American presidential election have been influenced.
“The new world of big data has the potential to be a force for good, but can also be used in dangerous and exploitative ways – we urgently need stronger regulation.”
“Both government and private organisations must work much harder to fulfil the reasonable and legitimate expectations citizens have for personal privacy,” said Daniel John, of Cambridge Conservatives. “Conservatives are passionate defenders of individuals’ rights and are keenly aware that the area of personal data is a complex and changing area.”
“This week’s revelations concerning the methods used by Cambridge Analytica highlight the threat that such firms pose to our democracy,” said Paul Browne, chair of Cambridge Stays. “We don’t know precisely what impact Cambridge Analytica or AggregateIQ – a company with which Cambridge Analytica have close links and which was hired by Vote Leave and three smaller Leave campaigns – had on the result of 2016 referendum campaign, but with such a close result it seems likely that they did contribute to the narrow Leave victory.
“When we look at the murky role these data mining companies played in the referendum campaign and the the secret donation to the DUP for which it was fined £6,000 by the Electoral Commission, we have the right to ask if our democracy has been bought. Sadly, it seems the answer is ‘yes’.”
“There is no doubt that some campaigns were happy to use Cambridge Analytica to win, despite clearly being aware of the disgraceful and unethical behaviour,” said former Cambridge MP Julian Huppert, who is now director of the Intellectual Forum at Jesus. “Although of course most people who voted for Trump or for Brexit could not have been aware of this, it is clear that senior people in those campaigns did know, and continued heedless. I have campaigned for many years to protect privacy in this new digital era - people should be very concerned about abuse of their information, whether that involves cybercrime and fraud, excessive state surveillance or, as in this case, private companies collecting and exploiting our data.”
“No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign,” said a Cambridge Analytica statement.