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Main article: Brexit

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 27

European risk report flags 5G security challenges

17:49 | 9 October

European Union Member States have published a joint risk assessment report into 5G technology which highlights increased security risks that will require a new approach to securing telecoms infrastructure.

The EU has so far resisted pressure from the U.S. to boycott Chinese tech giant Huawei as a 5G supplier on national security grounds, with individual Member States such as the UK also taking their time to chew over the issue.

But the report flags risks to 5G from what it couches as “non-EU state or state-backed actors” — which can be read as diplomatic code for Huawei. Though, as some industry watchers have been quick to point out, the label could be applied rather closer to home in the near future, should Brexit comes to pass…

Back in March, as European telecom industry concern swirled about how to respond to US pressure to block Huawei, the Commission stepped in to issue a series of recommendations — urging Member States to step up individual and collective attention to mitigate potential security risks as they roll out 5G networks.

Today’s risk assessment report follows on from that.

It identifies a number of “security challenges” that the report suggests are “likely to appear or become more prominent in 5G networks” vs current mobile networks — linked to the expanded use of software to run 5G networks; and software and apps that will be enabled by and run on the next-gen networks.

The role of suppliers in building and operating 5G networks is also noted as a security challenge, with the report warning of a “degree of dependency on individual suppliers”, and also of too many eggs being placed in the basket of a single 5G supplier.

Summing up the effects expected to follow 5G rollouts, per the report, it predicts:

  • An increased exposure to attacks and more potential entry points for attackers: With 5G networks increasingly based on software, risks related to major security flaws, such as those deriving from poor software development processes within suppliers are gaining in importance. They could also make it easier for threat actors to maliciously insert backdoors into products and make them harder to detect.
  • Due to new characteristics of the 5G network architecture and new functionalities, certain pieces of network equipment or functions are becoming more sensitive, such as base stations or key technical management functions of the networks.
  • An increased exposure to risks related to the reliance of mobile network operators on suppliers. This will also lead to a higher number of attacks paths that might be exploited by threat actors and increase the potential severity of the impact of such attacks. Among the various potential actors, non-EU States or State-backed are considered as the most serious ones and the most likely to target 5G networks.
  • In this context of increased exposure to attacks facilitated by suppliers, the risk profile of individual suppliers will become particularly important, including the likelihood of the supplier being subject to interference from a non-EU country.
  • Increased risks from major dependencies on suppliers: a major dependency on a single supplier increases the exposure to a potential supply interruption, resulting for instance from a commercial failure, and its consequences. It also aggravates the potential impact of weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and of their possible exploitation by threat actors, in particular where the dependency concerns a supplier presenting a high degree of risk.
  • Threats to availability and integrity of networks will become major security concerns: in addition to confidentiality and privacy threats, with 5G networks expected to become the backbone of many critical IT applications, the integrity and availability of those networks will become major national security concerns and a major security challenge from an EU perspective.

The high level report is a compilation of Member States’ national risk assessments, working with the Commission and the European Agency for Cybersecurity. It’s couched as just a first step in developing a European response to securing 5G networks.

“It highlights the elements that are of particular strategic relevance for the EU,” the report says in self-summary. “As such, it does not aim at presenting an exhaustive analysis of all relevant aspects or types of individual cybersecurity risks related to 5G networks.”

The next step will be the development, by December 31, of a toolbox of mitigating measures, agreed by the Network and Information Systems Cooperation Group, which will be aimed at addressing identified risks at national and Union level.

“By 1 October 2020, Member States – in cooperation with the Commission – should assess the effects of the Recommendation in order to determine whether there is a need for further action. This assessment should take into account the outcome of the coordinated European risk assessment and of the effectiveness of the measures,” the Commission adds.

For the toolbox a variety of measures are likely to be considered, per the report — consisting of existing security requirements for previous generations of mobile networks with “contingency approaches” that have been defined through standardisation by the mobile telephony standards body, 3GPP, especially for core and access levels of 5G networks.

But it also warns that “fundamental differences in how 5G operates also means that the current security measures as deployed on 4G networks might not be wholly effective or sufficiently comprehensive to mitigate the identified security risks”, adding that: “Furthermore, the nature and characteristics of some of these risks makes it necessary to determine if they may be addressed through technical measures alone.

“The assessment of these measures will be undertaken in the subsequent phase of the implementation of the Commission Recommendation. This will lead to the identification of a toolbox of appropriate, effective and proportionate possible risk management measures to mitigate cybersecurity risks identified by Member States within this process.”

The report concludes with a final line saying that “consideration should also be given to the development of the European industrial capacity in terms of software development, equipment manufacturing, laboratory testing, conformity evaluation, etc” — packing an awful lot into a single sentence.

The implication is that the business of 5G security will need to get commensurately large to scale to meet the multi-dimensional security challenge that goes hand in glove with the next-gen tech. Just banning a single supplier isn’t going to cut it.

 


0

Laurel Bowden of VC firm 83North on the European deep tech and startup ecosystems

21:56 | 7 October

London and Tel Aviv based VC firm 83North has closed out its fifth fund at $300 million, as we reported earlier. It last raised a $250 million fund in 2017 and expects to continue the same investment mix, while tracking developments in emerging areas like healthcare AI and autonomous vehicles.

In a conversation with general partner Laurel Bowden, the veteran investor shared a few further thoughts with Extra Crunch — talking about the tech scene in Europe vs Israel, what the firm looks for in a team and tips on scaling globally.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

TechCrunch: Is Europe starting to catch up to Israel when it comes to deep tech startups?

Laurel Bowden: We clearly think we have in our portfolio some deep tech. And in other VC portfolios too — there’s clearly some deep tech [coming out of Europe]. And then on the reverse side you’ve seen more consumer-related stuff coming out of Israel. But still if you take a blanket look, we see more data infrastructure, security, storage coming out of Israel than we see in Europe — that’s for sure.

 


0

European early-stage VC firm ‘Project A’ on Europe’s startup scene taking the next step

22:48 | 30 September

Project A, the Berlin-based VC, just raised a new $200 million fund (€180 million) to continue backing European startups at Seed and Series A stage.

In addition, the firm — whose investments include WorldRemit, Catawiki, Voi and Uberall — announced it will now have a presence in London and Stockholm in order to put people on the ground in what it says are “two of its favorite ecosystems.”

What better time, therefore, to catch up with the team at Project A, where we talked investment thesis, why Stockholm and London, and the increasing interest in Europe from U.S. LPs and VCs. Other subjects we touched on include diversity in venture, and, of course, Brexit!

TechCrunch: You last raised a fund in 2016, totaling €140 million, what changes have you noticed since then with regards to the types of companies you are seeing and the European ecosystem as a whole?

Uwe Horstmann: Entrepreneurs definitely matured a lot over the last few years. We see more and more of serial founders who combine drive with experience delivering great results. We also noticed an increase in more tech / product-centric and in B2B models.

This doesn’t come as a surprise as the market for consumer-oriented models started developing much earlier and is now reaching its limits after a few years. Many entrepreneurs gained experience in the Old Economy or have been consulting companies for a few years, learned about the struggle with products and processes first-hand and developed solutions specifically tailored to the industry’s needs.

We also notice a rise in professionalism in company setups and a higher ambition level in founding teams. This is probably also due to a more professional angel and micro fund scene that has developed in Europe.

TC: I note that you have U.S. LPs in the new fund, which I think is a first for Project A, and more broadly we are seeing a lot more interest from U.S. VCs in Europe these days. Why do you think that is, and how does this change the competitive landscape for deal-flow and the ambition of European founders?

Thies Sander: Having our first U.S. LPs on board makes us proud. LPs have noticed that European VC returns have really picked up during recent fund cohorts.

 


0

Worried about a ‘no deal’ brexit? UK startups should check this guide

14:11 | 27 September

UK startups concerned the country is about to leave the European Union in just a little over a month’s time with nothing agreed to ensure a smooth transition should point their eyes at this guide — put together by startup policy advocacy group, Coadec.

While a ‘no deal’ brexit is still not inevitable the chances of it happening have stepped up sharply in recent months as the clock winds down towards exit day with no withdrawal agreement in place. Such an outcome has major implications for technology businesses, given the cross-border nature of services startups tend to provide.

“With the UK potentially just over a month away from exiting the EU, no deal remains the default option,” warns Coadec. “We are clear that no deal would be disastrous for the startup community…but that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. That’s why we have teamed up with the UK Tech Cluster Group & Tech Nation to put together this guidance for the startup community.”

Under current prime minister, Boris Johnson, the UK government has sharply dialled up the brexit rhetoric. Johnson has said — in typical flashy fashion — that he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for an extension to the October 31st deadline for agreeing a deal with the European Union.

He has also prorogued parliament — illegally — in an attempt to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, which he described in an internal memo as “a rigmarole“.

The prorogation was quashed by the Supreme Court. But since parliament resumed this week ministers have been refusing to clearly state whether the government will abide by a law it passed just before it got closed down — which requires the PM to ask the EU for an extension if he fails to secure a withdrawal deal before October 19.

Speculation is therefore rife over what political chicanery the government might seek to pull to wiggle out of complying with the law and crash the UK out regardless.

Former UK prime minister, John Major, gave a speech this week warning that such a move would be unforgivable. But there are no signs the government is rethinking its approach.

Johnson has been splashing public money on an advertising campaign that instructs the country to “Get ready for brexit” (such as the billboard pictured above). The government also claims to have substantially ramped up domestic preparations for a no deal exit.

While it’s possible this loud show of bullying bravado is a theatrical tactic to try to pressure the EU into shifting position on contested brexit issues (primarily the Irish back-stop) — so Johnson can grab a deal which could pass a vote in parliament — it’s also possible the government isn’t that interested in a deal, and just wants to deliver brexit “do or die”, as the PM has also put it.

Even if it’s theatrics it doesn’t mean the whole high stakes game of chicken might not backfire — resulting in the UK actually crashing out with nothing on Halloween. The only robust legal certainty is that without an extension to Article 50 the UK will indeed leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal.

Given rising political turmoil in the UK combined with a hard and fast-approaching brexit deadline, startups are well advised to prepare for the worst — which means leaving the EU with no contingencies in place beyond those you’ve put in place yourself.

Coadec’s guide presents a concise overview of ten issues the policy advocacy group believes should be front of mind for startups and scaleups thinking about how to manage no deal risk.

The guide does not (and is not intended) to replace professional legal advice but it does cuts through a lot of the noise and fuzz around brexit — so it’s well worth a read, especially if you’re trying to get up to speed fast.

Top of their list is data flows — a major consideration for tech businesses that receive personal data from the EU or EEA.

“Startups will need to create contract-based legal structures to replace the free flows of data we took for granted under the European system,” Coadec writes, noting that the UK’s data protection agency is advising startups to look at model clauses, binding corporate rules, codes of conduct or certification mechanisms as alternatives for their data flows.

“These complicated legal structures have typically been the preserve of larger businesses and corporations, not startups and scaleups — so will take time to put in place,” it warns. “If you haven’t started preparations for your post-brexit data flows, they should be a priority now.”

Other issues the guide deals with include immigration & visas; taxation & VAT; and the impact of a no deal on specific pieces of EU legislation and strategy that are relevant to startups — such as the e-Commerce Directive and Digital Single Market — as well as related pieces of legislation (such as ePrivacy) that risk being caught in limbo by brexit as they’ve not yet been passed.

There’s also advice for startups that have .eu domain names, and for those who’ve received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 R&D fund, as well as links to relevant government resources.

The guide can be downloaded as a PDF here.

How is your startup preparing for brexit? What’s your biggest ‘no deal’ concern? How much is it costing you to manage brexit risk? Let us know by emailing tips@techcrunch.com 

 


0

Fitbit, Andela, AfricaTech, startups and Brexit, plus content moderation

20:36 | 30 August

Programming note: Happy Labor Day!

To our U.S.-based readers, happy Labor Day weekend. Extra Crunch will be off on Monday and will resume publishing next Tuesday.

Reminder: EC ticket discounts for Enterprise Sessions and Disrupt SF

Next week, we will be hosting our Enterprise Sessions event at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. It’s a killer lineup, and directly follows up on Ron and Frederic’s Extra Crunch coverage around quantum computing, next-generation cloud services, artificial intelligence, and data center orchestration. I just checked in with the events team, and we are down to the last dozen or so tickets before the fire marshal gets angry — so if you want to join us, please snag a ticket soon.

I will be at Yerba Buena all day, so if you are a subscriber and you are attending next Thursday, feel free to reach out — would love to meet any of you in person.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch Disrupt SF is about a month away, and it also has a stellar lineup. This year, we have a dedicated “Extra Crunch” stage focused on helping founders build their companies, from how to fundraise without dilution, to massively growing a team at scale, to how to build a brand and reach out to media. In addition, we will have a special Extra Crunch members-only lounge space as just one of a couple of ways we are trying to make our premium readers feel special at our biggest event of the year.

Today is the last day before ticket prices rise, so if you’re interested in coming, be sure to get an order in.

For all TechCrunch events, EC annual subscribers get a 20% ticket discount. Just reach out to customer service at extracrunch@techcrunch.com and they will get you all squared away.

Fitbit’s CEO discusses the company’s subscription future

Our hardware editor Brian Heater got a chance to sit down with James Park, CEO of Fitbit, about a topic near and dear to my heart: consumer subscriptions. With the rise of consumer fitness subscription startups like Peloton, which recently filed its S-1, the business model of fitness is being upended, and now Fitbit is preparing to move even more in this direction. Be sure to also check out Brian’s earlier analysis of the state of the smartwatch.

Heater:The narrative around Apple’s last several quarters, as far as how they’re allocating, is a shift into content. Do you think that more and more of the revenue is going to be generated by content and services versus hardware?

Park: Yeah, I think more of our profits, because of the gross margin profile, will be generated by the software and services. But I think the good thing for our category in general is that unlike smartphones, the hardware portion is still rapidly growing in many countries around the world.

If you look at smartwatches, they’re growing 30% or higher per year. And for us, in the first half, trackers actually grew 51% year over year. So there’s still a lot of innovation and growth in the hardware portion of wearables. But where we do see things rapidly taking off is in software and services.

 


0

Brittany Kaiser dumps more evidence of Brexit’s democratic trainwreck

17:40 | 30 July

A UK parliamentary committee has published new evidence fleshing out how membership data was passed from UKIP, a pro-Brexit political party, to Leave.EU, a Brexit supporting campaign active in the 2016 EU referendum — via the disgraced and now defunct data company, Cambridge Analytica.

In evidence sessions last year, during the DCMS committee’s enquiry into online disinformation, it was told by both the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, and the main financial backer of the Leave.EU campaign, the businessman Arron Banks, that Cambridge Analytica did no work for the Leave.EU campaign.

Documents published today by the committee clearly contradict that narrative — revealing internal correspondence about the use of a UKIP dataset to create voter profiles to carry out “national microtargeting” for Leave.EU.

They also show CA staff raising concerns about the legality of the plan to model UKIP data to enable Leave.EU to identify and target receptive voters with pro-Brexit messaging.

The UK’s 2016 in-out EU referendum saw the voting public narrowing voting to leave — by 52:48.

New evidence from Brittany Kaiser

The evidence, which includes emails between key Cambridge Analytica, employees of Leave.EU and UKIP, has been submitted to the DCMS committee by Brittany Kaiser — a former director of CA (who you may just have seen occupying a central role in Netflix’s The Great Hack documentary, which digs into links between the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign).

“As you can see with the evidence… chargeable work was completed for UKIP and Leave.EU, and I have strong reasons to believe that those datasets and analysed data processed by Cambridge Analytica as part of a Phase 1 payable work engagement… were later used by the Leave.EU campaign without Cambridge Analytica’s further assistance,” writes Kaiser in a covering letter to committee chair, Damian Collins, summarizing the submissions.

Kaiser gave oral evidence to the committee at a public hearing in April last year.

At the time she said CA had been undertaking parallel pitches for Leave.EU and UKIP — as well as for two insurance brands owned by Banks — and had used membership survey data provided by UKIP to built a model for pro-brexit voter personality types, with the intention of it being used “to benefit Leave.EU”.

“We never had a contract with Leave.EU. The contract was with the UK Independence party for the analysis of this data, but it was meant to benefit Leave.EU,” she said then.

The new emails submitted by Kaiser back up her earlier evidence. They also show there was discussion of drawing up a contract between CA, UKIP and Leave.EU in the fall before the referendum vote.

In one email — dated November 10, 2015 — CA’s COO & CFO, Julian Wheatland, writes that: “I had a call with [Leave.EU’s] Andy Wigmore today (Arron’s right hand man) and he confirmed that, even though we haven’t got the contract with the Leave written up, it’s all under control and it will happen just as soon as [UKIP-linked lawyer] Matthew Richardson has finished working out the correct contract structure between UKIP, CA and Leave.”

Another item Kaiser has submitted to the committee is a separate November email from Wigmore, inviting press to a briefing by Leave.EU — entitled “how to win the EU referendum” — an event at which Kaiser gave a pitch on CA’s work. In this email Wigmore describes the firm as “the worlds leading target voter messaging campaigners”.

In another document, CA’s Wheatland is shown in an email thread ahead of that presentation telling Wigmore and Richardson “we need to agree the line in the presentations next week with regards the origin of the data we have analysed”.

“We have generated some interesting findings that we can share in the presentation, but we are certain to be asked where the data came from. Can we declare that we have analysed UKIP membership and survey data?” he then asks.

UKIP’s Richardson replies with a negative, saying: “I would rather we didn’t, to be honest” — adding that he has a meeting with Wigmore to discuss “all of this”, and ending with: “We will have a plan by the end of that lunch, I think”.

In another email, dated November 10, sent to multiple recipients ahead of the presentation, Wheatland writes: “We need to start preparing Brittany’s presentation, which will involve working with some of the insights David [Wilkinson, CA’s chief data scientist] has been able to glean from the UKIP membership data.”

He also asks Wilkinson if he can start to “share insights from the UKIP data” — as well as asking “when are we getting the rest of the data?”. (In a later email, dated November 16, Wilkinson shares plots of modelled data with Kaiser — apparently showing the UKIP data now segmented into four blocks of brexit supporters, which have been named: ‘Eager activist’; ‘Young reformer’; ‘Disaffected Tories’; and ‘Left behinds’.)

In the same email Wheatland instructs Jordanna Zetter, an employee of CA’s parent company SCL, to brief Kaiser on “how to field a variety of questions about CA and our methodology, but also SCL. Rest of the world, SCL Defence etc” — asking her to liaise with other key SCL/CA staff to “produce some ‘line to take’ notes”.

Another document in the bundle appears to show Kaiser’s talking points for the briefing. These make no mention of CA’s intention to carry out “national microtargeting” for Leave.EU — merely saying it will conduct “message testing and audience segmentation”.

“We will be working with the campaign’s pollsters and other vendors to compile all the data we have available to us,” is another of the bland talking points Kaiser was instructed to feed to the press.

“Our team of data scientists will conduct deep-dive analysis that will enable us to understand the electorate better than the rival campaigns,” is one more unenlightening line intended for public consumption.

But while CA was preparing to present the UK media with a sanitized false narrative to gloss over the individual voter targeting work it actually intended to carry out for Leave.EU, behind the scenes concerns were being raised about how “national microtargeting” would conflict with UK data protection law.

Another email thread, started November 19, highlights internal discussion about the legality of the plan — with Wheatland sharing “written advice from Queen’s Counsel on the question of how we can legally process data in the UK, specifically UKIP’s data for Leave.eu and also more generally”. (Although Kaiser has not shared the legal advice itself.)

Wilkinson replies to this email with what he couches as “some concerns” regarding shortfalls in the advice, before going into detail on how CA is intending to further process the modelled UKIP data in order to individually microtarget brexit voters — which he suggests would not be legal under UK data protection law “as the identification of these people would constitute personal data”.

He writes:

I have some concerns about what this document says is our “output” – points 22 to 24. Whilst it includes what we have already done on their data (clustering and initial profiling of their members, and providing this to them as summary information), it does not say anything about using the models of the clusters that we create to extrapolate to new individuals and infer their profile. In fact it says that our output does not identify individuals. Thus it says nothing about our microtargeting approach typical in the US, which I believe was something that we wanted to do with leave eu data to identify how each their supporters should be contacted according to their inferred profile.

For example, we wouldn’t be able to show which members are likely to belong to group A and thus should be messaged in this particular way – as the identification of these people would constitute personal data. We could only say “group A typically looks like this summary profile”.

Wilkinson ends by asking for clarification ahead of a looming meeting with Leave.EU, saying: “It would be really useful to have this clarified early on tomorrow, because I was under the impression it would be a large part of our product offering to our UK clients.” [emphasis ours]

Wheatland follows up with a one line email, asking Richardson to “comment on David’s concern” — who then chips into the discussion, saying there’s “some confusion at our end about where this data is coming from and going to”.

He goes on to summarize the “premises” of the advice he says UKIP was given regarding sharing the data with CA (and afterwards the modelled data with Leave.EU, as he implies is the plan) — writing that his understanding is that CA will return: “Analysed Data to UKIP”, and then: “As the Analysed Dataset contains no personal data UKIP are free to give that Analysed Dataset to anyone else to do with what they wish. UKIP will give the Analysed Dataset to Leave.EU”.

“Could you please confirm that the above is correct?” Richardson goes on. “Do I also understand correctly that CA then intend to use the Analysed Dataset and overlay it on Leave.EU’s legitimately acquired data to infer (interpolate) profiles for each of their supporters so as to better control the messaging that leave.eu sends out to those supporters?

“Is it also correct that CA then intend to use the Analysed Dataset and overlay it on publicly available data to infer (interpolate) which members of the public are most likely to become Leave.EU supporters and what messages would encourage them to do so?

“If these understandings are not correct please let me know and I will give you a call to discuss this.”

About half an hour later another SCL Group employee, Peregrine Willoughby-Brown, joins the discussion to back up Wilkinson’s legal concerns.

“The [Queen’s Counsel] opinion only seems to be an analysis of the legality of the work we have already done for UKIP, rather than any judgement on whether or not we can do microtargeting. As such, whilst it is helpful to know that we haven’t already broken the law, it doesn’t offer clear guidance on how we can proceed with reference to a larger scope of work,” she writes without apparent alarm at the possibility that the entire campaign plan might be illegal under UK privacy law.

“I haven’t read it in sufficient depth to know whether or not it offers indirect insight into how we could proceed with national microtargeting, which it may do,” she adds — ending by saying she and a colleague will discuss it further “later today”.

It’s not clear whether concerns about the legality of the microtargeting plan derailed the signing of any formal contract between Leave.EU and CA — even though the documents imply data was shared, even if only during the scoping stage of the work.

“The fact remains that chargeable work was done by Cambridge Analytica, at the direction of Leave.EU and UKIP executives, despite a contract never being signed,” writes Kaiser in her cover letter to the committee on this. “Despite having no signed contract, the invoice was still paid, not to Cambridge Analytica but instead paid by Arron Banks to UKIP directly. This payment was then not passed onto Cambridge Analytica for the work completed, as an internal decision in UKIP, as their party was not the beneficiary of the work, but Leave.EU was.”

Kaiser has also shared a presentation of the UKIP survey data, which bears the names of three academics: Harold Clarke, University of Texas at Dallas & University of Essex; Matthew Goodwin, University of Kent; and Paul Whiteley, University of Essex, which details results from the online portion of the membership survey — aka the core dataset CA modelled for targeting Brexit voters with the intention of helping the Leave.EU campaign.

(At a glance, this survey suggests there’s an interesting analysis waiting to be done of the

for the current blitz of campaign message testing ads being run on Facebook by the new (pro-brexit) UK prime minister Boris Johnson and the core UKIP demographic, as revealed by the survey data… )

[gallery ids="1862050,1862051,1862052"]

Call for Leave.EU probe to be reopened

Ian Lucas, MP, a member of the DCMS committee has called for the UK’s Electoral Commission to re-open its investigation into Leave.EU in view of “additional evidence” from Kaiser.

We reached out to the Electoral Commission to ask if it will be revisiting the matter.

An Electoral Commission spokesperson told us: “We are considering this new information in relation to our role regulating campaigner activity at the EU referendum. This relates to the 10 week period leading up to the referendum and to campaigning activity specifically aimed at persuading people to vote for a particular outcome.

“Last July we did impose significant penalties on Leave.EU for committing multiple offences under electoral law at the EU Referendum, including for submitting an incomplete spending return.”

Last year the Electoral Commission also found that the official Vote Leave Brexit campaign broke the law by breaching election campaign spending limits. It channelled money to a Canadian data firm linked to Cambridge Analytica to target political ads on Facebook’s platform, via undeclared joint working with a youth-focused Brexit campaign, BeLeave.

Six months ago the UK’s data watchdog also issued fines against Leave.EU and Banks’ insurance company, Eldon Insurance — having found what it dubbed as “serious” breaches of electronic marketing laws, including the campaign using insurance customers’ details to unlawfully to send almost 300,000 political marketing messages.

A spokeswoman for the ICO told us it does not have a statement on Kaiser’s latest evidence but added that its enforcement team “will be reviewing the documents released by DCMS”.

The regulator has been running a wider enquiry into use of personal data for social media political campaigning. And last year the information commissioner called for an ethical pause on its use — warning that trust in democracy risked being undermined.

And while Facebook has since applied a thin film of ‘political ads’ transparency to its platform (which researches continue to warn is not nearly transparent enough to quantify political use of its ads platform), UK election campaign laws have yet to be updated to take account of the digital firehoses now (il)liberally shaping political debate and public opinion at scale.

It’s now more than three years since the UK’s shock vote to leave the European Union — a vote that has so far delivered three years of divisive political chaos, despatching two prime ministers and derailing politics and policymaking as usual.

Leave.EU

Many questions remain over a referendum that continues to be dogged by scandals — from breaches of campaign spending; to breaches of data protection and privacy law; and indeed the use of unregulated social media — principally Facebook’s ad platform — as the willing conduit for distributing racist dogwhistle attack ads and political misinformation to whip up anti-EU sentiment among UK voters.

Dark money, dark ads — and the importing of US style campaign tactics into UK, circumventing election and data protection laws by the digital platform backdoor.

This is why the DCMS committee’s preliminary report last year called on the government to take “urgent action” to “build resilience against misinformation and disinformation into our democratic system”.

The very same minority government, struggling to hold itself together in the face of Brexit chaos, failed to respond to the committee’s concerns — and has now been replaced by a cadre of the most militant Brexit backers, who are applying their hands to the cheap and plentiful digital campaign levers.

The UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, is demonstrably doubling down on political microtargeting: Appointing no less than Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of the official Vote Leave campaign, as a special advisor.

At the same time Johnson’s team is firing out a flotilla of Facebook ads — including ads that appear intended to gather voter sentiment for the purpose of crafting individually targeted political messages for any future election campaign.

So it’s full steam ahead with the Facebook ads…

Boris Facebook ads

Yet this ‘democratic reset’ is laid right atop the Brexit trainwreck. It’s coupled to it, in fact.

Cummings worked for the self same Vote Leave campaign that the Electoral Commission found illegally funnelled money — via Cambridge Analytica-linked Canadian data firm AggregateIQ — into a blitz of microtargeted Facebook ads intended to sway voter opinion.

Vote Leave also faced questions over its use of Facebook-run football competition promising a £50M prize-pot to fans in exchange for handing over a bunch of personal data ahead of the referendum, including how they planned to vote. Another data grab wrapped in fancy dress — much like GSR’s thisisyourlife quiz app that provided the foundational dataset for CA’s psychological voter profiling work on the Trump campaign.

The elevating of Cummings to be special adviser to the UK PM represents the polar opposite of an ‘ethical pause’ in political microtargeting.

Make no mistake, this is the Brexit campaign playbook — back in operation, now with full-bore pedal to the metal. (With his hands now on the public purse, Johnson has pledged to spend £100M on marketing to sell a ‘no deal Brexit’ to the UK public.)

Kaiser’s latest evidence may not contain a smoking bomb big enough to blast the issue of data-driven and tech giant-enabled voter manipulation into a mainstream consciousness, where it might have the chance to reset the political conscience of a nation — but it puts more flesh on the bones of how the self-styled ‘bad boys of Brexit’ pulled off their shock win.

In The Great Hack the Brexit campaign is couched as the ‘petri dish’ for the data-fuelled targeting deployed by the firm in the 2016 US presidential election — which delivered a similarly shock victory for Trump.

If that’s so, these latest pieces of evidence imply a suggestively close link between CA’s experimental modelling of UKIP supporter data, as it shifted gears to apply its dark arts closer to home than usual, and the models it subsequently built off of US citizens’ data sucked out of Facebook. And that in turn goes some way to explaining the cosiness between Trump and UKIP founder Nigel Farage…

 

Kaiser ends her letter to DCMS writing: “Given the enormity of the implications of earlier inaccurate conclusions by different investigations, I would hope that Parliament reconsiders the evidence submitted here in good faith. I hope that these ten documents are helpful to your research and furthering the transparency and truth that your investigations are seeking, and that the people of the UK and EU deserve”.

Banks and Wigmore have responded to the publication in their usual style, with a pair of dismissive tweets — questioning Kaiser’s motives for wanting the data to be published and throwing shade on how the evidence was obtained in the first place.

 


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‘The Great Hack’: Netflix doc unpacks Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Brexit and democracy’s death

05:47 | 24 July

It’s perhaps not for nothing that The Great Hack – the new Netflix documentary about the connections between Cambridge Analytica, the US election and Brexit, out on July 23 – opens with a scene from Burning Man. There, Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, scrawls the name of the company onto a strut of ‘the temple’ that will eventually get burned in that fiery annual ritual. It’s an apt opening.

There are probably many of us who’d wish quite a lot of the last couple of years could be thrown into that temple fire, but this documentary is the first I’ve seen to expertly unpick what has become the real-world dumpster fire that is social media, dark advertising and global politics which have all become inextricably, and, often fatally, combined.

The documentary is also the first that you could plausibly recommend those of your relatives and friends who don’t work in tech, as it explains how social media – specifically Facebook – is now manipulating our lives and society, whether we like it or not.

As New York Professor David Carroll puts it at the beginning, Facebook gives “any buyer direct access to my emotional pulse” – and that included political campaigns during the Brexit referendum and the Trump election. Privacy campaigner Carroll is pivotal to the film’s story of how our data is being manipulated and essentially kept from us by Facebook.

The UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union, in fact, became “the petri dish” for a Cambridge Analytica experiment, says Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr She broke the story of how the political consultancy, led by Eton-educated CEO Alexander Nix, applied techniques normally used by ‘psyops’ operatives in Afghanistan to the democratic operations of the US and UK, and many other countries, over a chilling 20+ year history. Watching this film, you literally start to wonder if history has been warped towards a sickening dystopia.

carole

The petri-dish of Brexit worked. Millions of adverts, explains the documentary, targeted individuals, exploiting fear and anger, to switch them from ‘persuadables’, as CA called them, into passionate advocates for, first Brexit in the UK, and then Trump later on.

Switching to the US, the filmmakers show how CA worked directly with Trump’s “Project Alamo” campaign, spending a million dollars a day on Facebook ads ahead of the 2016 election.

The film expertly explains the timeline of how CA had first worked off Ted Cruz’s campaign, and nearly propelled that lack-luster candidate into first place in the Republican nominations. It was then that the Trump campaign picked up on CA’s military-like operation.

After loading up the psychographic survey information CA had obtained from Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University academic who orchestrated the harvesting of Facebook data, the world had become their oyster. Or, perhaps more accurately, their oyster farm.

Back in London, Cadwalladr notices triumphant Brexit campaigners fraternizing with Trump and starts digging. There is a thread connecting them to Breitbart owner Steve Bannon. There is a thread connecting them to Cambridge Analytica. She tugs on those threads and, like that iconic scene in ‘The Hurt Locker’ where all the threads pull-up unexploded mines, she starts to realize that Cambridge Analytica links them all. She needs a source though. That came in the form of former employee Chris Wylie, a brave young man who was able to unravel many of the CA threads.

But the film’s attention is often drawn back to Kaiser, who had worked first on US political campaigns and then on Brexit for CA. She had been drawn to the company by smooth-talking CEO Nix, who begged: “Let me get you drunk and steal all of your secrets.”

But was she a real whistleblower? Or was she trying to cover her tracks? How could someone who’d worked on the Obama campaign switch to Trump? Was she a victim of Cambridge Analytica, or one of its villains?

British political analyst Paul Hilder manages to get her to come to the UK to testify before a parliamentary inquiry. There is high drama as her part in the story unfolds.

Kaiser appears in various guises which vary from idealistically naive to stupid, from knowing to manipulative. It’s almost impossible to know which. But hearing about her revelation as to why she made the choices she did… well, it’s an eye-opener.

brit

Both she and Wylie have complex stories in this tale, where not everything seems to be as it is, reflecting our new world, where truth is increasingly hard to determine.

Other characters come and go in this story. Zuckerburg makes an appearance in Congress and we learn of the casual relationship Facebook had to its complicity in these political earthquakes. Although if you’re reading TechCrunch, then you will probably know at least part of this story.

Created for Netflix by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, these Egyptian-Americans made “The Square”, about the Egyptian revolution of 2011. To them, the way Cambridge Analytica applied its methods to online campaigning was just as much a revolution as Egyptians toppling a dictator from Cario’s iconic Tahrir Square.

For them, the huge irony is that “psyops”, or psychological operations used on Muslim populations in Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks ended up being used to influence Western elections.

Cadwalladr stands head and shoulders above all as a bastion of dogged journalism, even as she is attacked from all quarters, and still is to this day.

What you won’t find out from this film is what happens next. For many, questions remain on the table: What will happen now Facebook is entering Cryptocurrency? Will that mean it could be used for dark election campaigning? Will people be paid for their votes next time, not just in Likes? Kaiser has a bitcoin logo on the back of her phone. Is that connected? The film doesn’t comment.

But it certainly unfolds like a slow-motion car crash, where democracy is the car and you’re inside it.

 


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Freshly elected as UK’s next PM, Boris Johnson pledges full fiber broadband bonanza

16:36 | 23 July

Get ready for a British Trump: The UK will shortly have a new prime minister after the Conservative Party membership overwhelmingly voted to elect Boris Johnson as their new party leader, passing over his sole rival for the post, Jeremy Hunt.

Johnson received 92,135 votes, a full 45,497 more than Hunt.

He replaces Theresa May who announced she would step down in May after failing to achieve backing from parliament for her EU withdrawal deal — the second PM to be topped by Brexit in just under three years.

Whether Johnson can outlast even May’s brief tenure very much remains to be seen.

The former journalist and ex major of London has made a political success story of clowning around in public, cracking often self-depreciating jokes which encourage a perception of joviality and good humor, while simultaneously pressing his personal ambition behind the scenes and ruthlessly gunning for the highest office in the land — which was his motivation for switching to back Brexit in the first place.

The clown mask enables the political manoeuvering, as it were.

How the usual Johnson ‘circus’ will translate into firm policy positions is something of an open question at this stage, though early indications suggest he’s intending an infrastructure spending spree — to feed the popularity contest that has, after all, swept him to power.

Albeit how any such public spending bonanza will be funded is anyone’s guess at this stage. One of his few leadership pledges was an income tax cut for high earners — which would rather shrink the Treasury’s coffers by billions than expand it…

He has also implied he might withhold the UK’s exit payment to the EU — a multi-billion sum that’s intended to cover the country’s existing commitments as it leaves the bloc.

But if you’re simultaneously hoping to ink a trade deal with the very same neighbors you’re denying payment to that would seem a rather self-defeating and short-term strategy, both at home and abroad.

Giving his Conservative leadership acceptance speech this afternoon there was little of policy substance on show from Johnson. In his usual showman style, he preferred to stroke sitting Tory egos with a confection of positive projections and feel-good sentiments — principally about ‘getting brexit done’ (though nothing on how he will actually get it done).

He also dropped a few enthusiastic words vis-a-vis infrastructure, education and broadband — going longest on the latter by claiming that “fantastic full fiber broadband” would be “sprouting in every household”, before falling back on the safe and fuzzy ground of non-specific cheerleading of party and country.

On the surface the fiber broadband pledge looks like a rinse and repeat of an existing government policy — announced in last year’s digital strategy — to put all UK households in reach of fibre to the premise (FTTP) by 2033.

Though the government had not committed to paying the estimated £30BN to fund a full rollout, focusing on regulatory tweaks to encourage the market to cover the majority of the country, targeting public cash at the tricky last fifth.

But penning his regular column in the Telegraph newspaper last month, Johnson dubbed the 2033 target “laughably unambitious“, writing that: “If we want to unite our country and our society, we should commit now to delivering full fibre to every home in the land not in the mid 2030s — but in five years at the outside.”

So a Boris Johnson-led Tory government’s full fibre target is, seemingly, being brought forward to 2025.

If he really intends for the public purse to bankroll universal FTTP within a five year time-scale it would certainly be transformative — with many rural regions still lagging urban Britain’s high speed access to Internet services, as a result of the business case for a rapid upgrade of these digital slow-lanes not stacking up.

Johnson is also right to identify the digital divide as increasingly problematic given the onward march of commercial technology. (And, indeed, increasingly problematic as more government services get pushed online — which risks widening the inequality gap, though he didn’t really dwell on that.)

However there’s no doubt that pressing fast forward on universal FTTP will entail a much larger bill than the government had budgeted for.

Last year’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review suggested an additional £3BN to £5BN in public funding would be needed to support commercial investment in the final ~10% of areas that would otherwise be overlooked, per the 2033 timeline. It’s anyone’s guess how much more public money will be needed to accelerate the whole broadband project to meet a universal access goal almost a decade quicker, per Johnson’s plan.

Though, as noted above, a full rollout has been costed at £30BN.

Assuming that ceiling wouldn’t need to be raised as a result of increased deployment velocity, the cost of Johnson’s faster fiber ambition could therefore scale spending on this particular infrastructure project 6x more than current government plans. Hence the pressing question of where the public funds will come from?

How much the Johnson push for ‘rural first’ fibre might cost UK consumers is another matter.

He talks in his newspaper column about “stimulating the private sector to get it done”. And if that stimulation includes government agreeing to industry demands to lengthen or even hyper-extend market review periods in order to encourage the private sector to get digging and fast, then it could result in UK consumers being on the hook twice: First by shelling out to lay the fiber in the first place, and then getting price-gouged to use the fibre-powered Internet services they’ve helped pay for.

Of course ‘fiber for all’ makes a great soundbite for PM Johnson to make a play for hearts and minds.

But, as with everything soon set to cross his desk, the devil is in the detail. And, well, clowns aren’t renowned for their grasp of those kinds of things.

 


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Facebook refuses to disclose “chuck Chequers” Brexit advertiser to UK parliament

16:21 | 6 March

Facebook has refused to provide the British parliament with the names of individuals behind a shadowy network backing an extreme ‘no deal’ Brexit outcome over a government-negotiated compromise.

Since the June 2016 EU referendum vote, politics in the UK has been consumed by the question of how to implement a close vote to leave.

And last year the UK’s Electoral Commission confirmed the vote was tarnished by in influx of dark money ploughed into social media ads — with platforms such as Facebook offering an unregulated route for circumventing democratic norms.

Nor have the Brexit ads stopped since the referendum.

An unknown group, called ‘Mainstream Network’, ran a series of political ads on Facebook’s platform last year which targeted voters in key leave voting constituencies urging them to pressure on their member of parliament not to support the prime minister’s approach to seek a withdrawal deal from the EU.

Such a deal would allow the UK to leave the bloc more smoothly, with more contingencies in place to cover the exit. But legally, if no deal (and/or no extension to Article 50) is agreed before the end of this month the UK could just ‘crash out’ of the EU without any such safety net.

Unknown entities have been using Facebook’s platform to push for exactly that to happen — by paying Facebook to target leave voters with anti-Brexit-deal ads (which included the line “chuck Chequers”; a reference to the prime minister’s Brexit deal).

Last year research commissioned by a UK parliamentary committee as part of an enquiry into political advertising online spotlit the existence of Mainstream Network, estimating the unknown Facebook advertiser had spent ~£257,000 in just over 10 months.

Its Facebook pages were said to have reached between 10M and 11M people on the platform.

Mainstream Network also operated a ‘news’ website, where whoever was behind it curated pro-Brexit content and advocated for no deal being “better than partition or permanent vassalage”.

Last November Facebook policy VP Richard Allan faced questions from the DCMS committee about who is behind the ‘Mainstream Network’ Brexit ads running on Facebook.

DCMS chair Damian Collins asked for Facebook to provide details of the accounts behind Mainstream Network or if it would not to provide a reason for not disclosing the information.

Yesterday the committee published Facebook’s refusal to provide the information to the DCMS committee. Though it said it has passed some information to the UK’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

“The Committee asked about an advertiser on our platform called Mainstream Network. As I noted at the time, in the event that Facebook receives a request for personal data from an entity which can legally require such information, Facebook will provide information in line with normal procedures. You will appreciate that it would be inappropriate to provide personal data of our users to any third party absent a lawful basis for such disclosure,” writes Allan.

He goes on to say that Facebook has provided “information” about Mainstream Network to the UK’s data watchdog “on a private and confidential basis”.

The ICO is investigating the advertiser as part of a wider probe into the use of social media for political campaigning.

“It is now a matter for ICO (acting in accordance with its statutory duties) to determine what they will do with the data provided to them,” Allan adds.

We reached out to the ICO to ask whether it intends to disclose the names.

“We received a response from Facebook to an Information Notice issued by the ICO. The information is under review and forms part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes,” a spokeswoman told us.

Last summer information commissioner Elizabeth Denham called for an ethical pause of the use of social media tools for political ads — saying she was concerned about the lack of transparency and the knock-on impact that could have on democracy.

In recent years Facebook has been busy making loud crisis PR noises about how it’s ‘increasing the transparency’ around advertisers on its platform — ever since the 2016 US presidential election disinformation scandal blew up, and it emerged quite how many Roubles Facebook had been accepting to allow divisive Kremlin ads to target US voters.

The company launched ‘political ad transparency’ measures in the U.S. initially, including a requirement for election advertisers to verify they are US-based.

It has also since rolled out some similar measures in some international markets — including in the U.K. where it introduced a system for disclosing political ads last fall. (Though it quickly had to rework the system after it was shown being trivially easy to spoof.)

Allan appears to intend to reference the latter measures in the concluding portion of his letter, albeit he gets the date wrong by a full year.

“I further note that as of 29 November 2019 [sic], we have required political advertisers to consent to the publication of additional information in the form of a disclaimer that they create when they go through the authorisation process. All political advertisements along with these disclaimers are made available to the public in our Ad Library,” he writes, without making it clear why that should mean Facebook can’t disclose the identities behind Mainstream Network.

The company has claimed to be working towards having a “global system” for political ad transparency.

But the reality on the ground remains highly variable, piecemeal and very far from perfect full transparency.

Nor will Facebook even come clean with the public when specifically asked to do so by policymakers, as its refusal to the DCMS shows.

Responding to the company’s letter in a series of tweets, Collins writes: “I believe there is a strong public interest in understanding who is behind the Mainstream Network, and that this information should be published. People have a right to know how is targeting them with political advertisements and why.”

It remains to be seen whether the ICO will release the information Facebook has provided it.

The watchdog has also so far declined to disclose the identities of several senior Facebook executives who knew about another political ad scandal — the Cambridge Analytica data breach — earlier than the company had publicly claimed it knew.

The DCMS committee published its final report into online disinformation last month, setting out a laundry list of recommendations for cleaning up political campaigning in the digital era.

The report also includes the tidbit about the trio of senior Facebook managers who knew (but apparently did not disclose) the Cambridge Analytica breach sooner than Zuckerberg himself knew, as well as singling out Facebook for “disingenuous” and “bad faith” responses to democratic concerns about the misuse of people’s data.

The committee also calls for privacy and antitrust regulators to investigate the company.

 


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Job Today gets a $16M top up as it preps for Brexit bump

15:42 | 12 September

Accel-backed mobile-first jobs app Job Today has pulled in another $16M — an expansion to its November 2016 $20M Series B round. It raised a $10M Series A in January of the same year.

The 2015 founded startup offers a mobile app for job seekers that does away with the need for a CV.

Instead job seekers create a profile in the app and can apply to relevant jobs. Employers can then triage potential applicants via the app and chat to any they like the look of via its messaging platform.

The approach has been especially popular with fast turnover jobs in the service industry, such as hospitality and retail.

Job Today says it has more than five million job seekers registered on its platform, and claims to have delivered more than 100 million candidate applications to the 400,000+ predominantly small businesses posting jobs via the app to date (with 1M+ jobs posted). It currently operates in two markets: Spain and the UK.

The additional funding will be put towards expanding its presence in the UK market — where it says it’s seen “significant growth” in both job postings and candidate applications.

It says the overall volume of applications has increased by 46% year-on-year in the market, with the number of applications per candidate growing by 32% in the same period. The likes of Costa Coffee, Pret A Manger and Eat are named as among its “regular hirers”.

It’s also envisaging a Brexit bump for the local casual job market, as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union looks set to impact the supply of labor for employers…

Commenting in a statement, CEO Eugene Mizin, said: “The casual job market is often the first to experience the effects from macro-economic forces and Brexit will mean that many non-skilled and non-British workers will leave the UK. This will create a demand to fill casual jobs and create new opportunities for the less-skilled school, college and university leavers entering the workforce for the first time in 2019.”

The Series B expansion funds are coming from New York based investor 14W.

Job Today says it got additional growth uplift after integrating with Google Jobs — aka Google search’s built in AI-powered jobs engine. This launched in the UK in July 2018, and Job Today said it saw 101% growth in users in the first month of integration.

 


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