Goodbye Cambridge Analytica, we hardly knew ye! But you knew us

3 May 2018

Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix on stage at the Web Summit in Lisbon last year. Image: Web Summit/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Cambridge Analytica has imploded under the weight of the data scandal that may have influenced Donald Trump’s election and the UK Brexit vote.

Cambridge Analytica, the UK political consultancy at the centre of the data harvesting scandal that rocked Facebook to its very core, is to shut down.

SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, took the decision as a result of mounting legal costs and the loss of clients following the media storm that ensued when the whole dastardly affair was brought to light in March.

It is understood that at least 87m people had their data harvested from Facebook because of the use of an app called This Is Your Digital Life, which took advantage of privacy weaknesses in Facebook’s app ecosystem.

It is still uncertain how widespread the practice is and even Facebook has admitted there may be more Cambridge Analytica-like scandals on the horizon.

Despite the mountain of coverage implicating the company, in a statement it appeared to insist it holds the moral high ground and did nothing wrong.

“Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations and, despite the company’s efforts to correct the record, has been vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas,” the company said in a statement.

“Despite Cambridge Analytica’s unwavering confidence that its employees have acted ethically and lawfully, which view is now fully supported by [independent investigator Julian Malins’] report, the siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the company’s customers and suppliers.

“As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business, which left Cambridge Analytica with no realistic alternative to placing the company into administration.”

This is a fire that will never go out

Despite the company’s protestations, a major technological and political fire storm has been unleashed, leading to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appearing before Congress in the US.

He has also been threatened with a summons to appear before a UK Parliament committee and is understood to be mulling an appearance before the EU Parliament.

Closing down Cambridge Analytica in the UK will still be no defence and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has said that its investigation will pursue individuals and directors.

There are fears that closing the company might compromise the hunt for data. Indeed, it raises questions as to who would retain the intellectual property of Cambridge Analytica.

Damian Collins, chair of the UK Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, tweeted: “Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group cannot be allowed to delete their data history by closing. The investigations into their work are vital.”

Cambridge Analytica itself released a report yesterday (2 April) that appeared to contradict assertions made by former employees and and downplayed the role of whistleblower Christopher Wylie.

And is Cambridge Analytica really gone? There have been reports suggesting that SCL may just be renaming the company under a new, less toxic brand headed by acting Cambridge Analytica CEO Dr Alexander Taylor, called Emerdata.

So how did the whole Cambridge Analytica thing kick off?

On 17 March, both The Observer and the The New York Times jointly broke the story about how a political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica had harvested Facebook users’ data to effectively game political outcomes through misinformation and targeted advertising.

The news was explosive and, within days, Channel 4 News carried a report showing CEO Alexander Nix secretly filmed boasting about how it could change electoral outcomes in various countries and essentially manipulate democracy for the highest bidder.

It was the stuff of George Orwell’s worst nightmare. A private Big Brother with teeth and money.

Cambridge Analytica was founded in 2013 by Eton-educated businessman Nigel Oakes and former CEO Alexander Nix. The company is a subsidiary of SCL (Strategic Communications Laboratories) Group, a firm with links to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.

The heart of the matter is an app called This Is Your Digital Life, which was allegedly used by University of Cambridge psychology professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan to gather data on Facebook users. The app was downloaded 270,000 times and users consented to give up personal details as well as connections to their friends list.

At first, it was believed that 50m people were affected. Now it stands at 87m by Facebook’s own admission and the social networking giant admits there could be other similar apps in the wild.

Why all of this matters

The truth is most internet users have – until now – been lambs to the slaughter when it comes to their data. Most of us blithely signed up for new apps and services not realising how valuable a commodity our data actually is. If something is free online, you are the product.

The whole Cambridge Analytica affair – arriving as it did just a month or two before the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) becomes law in Europe on 25 May – was a wake-up call for people everywhere.

The scandal has rocked Facebook with its 2.2bn users to the core and will inform everything about how the internet giant and others like it will conduct their affairs for the foreseeable future.

Crucially, it has awoken us all to the nefarious, ruthless methods that people in the shadows will employ to deliver the results they want, even if it destroys lives or undermines governments.

Until now we all feared hackers who wanted our credit card details or more. But now we know that political interests and well-heeled people in pristine suits who walk corridors of power have a new weapon: your data.

The closure of Cambridge Analytica is just one sorry footnote in an epic battle that could run for a very long time.

The age of digital innocence has ended.

Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix on stage at the Web Summit in Lisbon last year. Image: Web Summit/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years