The ICO spokeswoman confirmed that it had approached Cambridge Analytica over its apparent use of data following the story in the Observer. “We have concerns about Cambridge Analytica’s reported use of personal data and we are in contact with the organisation,” she said.
The company, which has offices in London, New York and Washington, uses data analysis to build up sophisticated profiles of individuals to predict how they might vote. Reportedly part-owned by US billionaire Robert Mercer, it claims to have played an influential role in the US election, using its data-crunching ability to identify key swing voters.
Mercer is a friend of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Last week, Andy Wigmore, the communications director of the pro-Brexit campaign group, Leave.EU, told the Observer they had been introduced to the company by the Mercer family.
“They were happy to help,” he said. “Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Mercer introduced them to us. He said, ‘Here’s this company we think may be useful to you’. What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels. We shared a lot of information.”
In February 2016, the company’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, talked about how it had helped to “supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign by ensuring the right messages are getting to the right voters online”.
A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica denied it had played any role – either paid or unpaid – during the referendum campaign, something that would have to be declared to the Electoral Commission. But Green MP Caroline Lucas, who campaigned for Remain, said: “Clearly, there are questions to be answered about the Leave campaign’s use of big data and a potentially huge ‘in kind’ donation by Cambridge Analytica. To have a foreign billionaire’s fingerprints left all over such a seismic moment in British history is deeply concerning and requires urgent further investigation as to whether electoral law was broken.”
A second specialist profiling company is also under scrutiny for its work in the Brexit campaign. Canadian firm AggregateIQ uses targeted marketing such as online advertising and social media to ensure that its clients’ content reaches the right people.
BuzzFeed News recently revealed how Vote Leave gave £625,000 to a student, Darren Grimes, which he then used to hire AggregateIQ to produce a targeted pro-leave Facebook ad campaign – apparently with spectacular results. Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave, declared: “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Dr Simon Moores, visiting lecturer in the applied sciences and computing department at Canterbury Christ Church University and a technology ambassador under the Blair government, said the ICO’s decision to shine a light on the use of big data in politics was timely.
“A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish.”