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Main article: Brexit

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 25

Brexit ad blitz data firm paid by Vote Leave broke privacy laws, watchdogs find

14:08 | 27 November

joint investigation by watchdogs in Canada and British Columbia has found that Cambridge Analytica-linked data firm, Aggregate IQ, broke privacy laws in Facebook ad-targeting work it undertook for the official Vote Leave Brexit campaign in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum.

A quick reminder: Vote Leave was the official leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. While Cambridge Analytica is the (now defunct) firm at the center of a massive Facebook data misuse scandal which has dented the company’s fortunes and continues to tarnish its reputation.

Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings — now a special advisor to the UK prime minister — wrote in 2017 that the winning recipe for the leave campaign was data science. And, more specifically, spending 98% of its marketing budget on “nearly a billion targeted digital adverts”.

Targeted at Facebook users.

The problem is, per the Canadian watchdogs’ conclusions, AIQ did not have proper legal consents from UK voters for disclosing their personal information to Facebook for the Brexit ad blitz which Cummings ordered.

Either for “the purpose of advertising to those individuals (via ‘custom audiences’) or for the purpose of analyzing their traits and characteristics in order to locate and target others like them (via ‘lookalike audiences’)”.

Oops.

Last year the UK’s Electoral Commission also concluded that Vote Leave breached election campaign spending limits by channeling money to AIQ to run the targeting political ads on Facebook’s platform, via undeclared joint working with another Brexit campaign, BeLeave. So there’s a full sandwich of legal wrongdoings stuck to the brexit mess that UK society remains mired in, more than three years later.

Meanwhile, the current UK General Election is now a digital petri dish for data scientists and democracy hackers to run wild experiments in microtargeted manipulation — given election laws haven’t been updated to take account of the outgrowth of the adtech industry’s tracking and targeting infrastructure, despite multiple warnings from watchdogs and parliamentarians.

Data really is helluva a drug.

The Canadian investigation cleared AIQ of any wrongdoing in its use of phone numbers to send SMS messages for another pro-Brexit campaign, BeLeave; a purpose the watchdogs found had been authorized by the consent provided by individuals who gave their information to that youth-focused campaign.

But they did find consent problems with work AIQ undertook for various US campaigns on behalf of Cambridge Analytica affiliate, SCL Elections — including for a political action committee, a presidential primary campaign and various campaigns in the 2014 midterm elections.

And, again — as we know — Facebook is squarely in the frame here too.

“The investigation finds that the personal information provided to and used by AIQ comes from disparate sources. This includes psychographic profiles derived from personal information Facebook disclosed to Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, and onward to Cambridge Analytica,” the watchdogs write.

“In the case of their work for US campaigns… AIQ did not attempt to determine whether there was consent it could rely on for its use and disclosure of personal information.”

The investigation also looked at AIQ’s work for multiple Canadian campaigns — finding fewer issues related to consent. Though the report states that in: “certain cases, the purposes for which individuals are informed, or could reasonably assume their personal information is being collected, do not extend to social media advertising and analytics”.

AIQ also gets told off for failing to properly secure the data it misused.

This element of the probe resulted from a data breach reported by UpGuard after it found AIQ running an unsecured GitLab repository — holding what the report dubs “substantial personal information”, as well as encryption keys and login credentials which it says put the personal information of 35 million+ people at risk.

Double oops.

“The investigation determined that AIQ failed to take reasonable security measures to ensure that personal information under its control was secure from unauthorized access or disclosure,” is the inexorable conclusion.

Turns out if an entity doesn’t have a proper legal right to people’s information in the first place it may not be majorly concerned about where else the data might end up.

The report flows from an investigation into allegations of unauthorized access and use of Facebook user profiles which was started by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC in late 2017. A separate probe was opened by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada last year. The two watchdogs subsequently combined their efforts.

The upshot for AIQ from the joint investigation’s finding of multiple privacy and security violations is a series of, er, “recommendations”.

On the data use front it is suggested the company take “reasonable measures” to ensure any third-party consent it relies on for collection, use or disclosure of personal information on behalf of clients is “adequate” under the relevant Canadian and BC privacy laws.

“These measures should include both contractual measures and other measures, such as reviewing the consent language used by the client,” the watchdogs suggest. “Where the information is sensitive, as with political opinions, AIQ should ensure there is express consent, rather than implied.”

On security, the recommendations are similarly for it to “adopt and maintain reasonable security measures to protect personal information, and that it delete personal information that is no longer necessary for business or legal purposes”.

“During the investigation, AIQ took steps to remedy its security breach. AIQ has agreed to implement the Offices’ recommendations,” the report adds.

The upshot of political ‘data science’ for Western democracies? That’s still tbc. Buckle up.

 


0

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

Despite Brexit, UK startups can compete with Silicon Valley to win tech talent

19:01 | 11 September

Mehul Patel Contributor
Mehul Patel is the CEO of Hired , the marketplace that matches tech talent with the world's most innovative companies.

Brexit has taken over discourse in the UK and beyond. In the UK alone, it is mentioned over 500 million times a day, in 92 million conversations — and for good reason. While the UK has yet to leave the EU, the impact of Brexit has already rippled through industries all over the world. The UK’s technology sector is no exception. While innovation endures in the midst of Brexit, data reveals that innovative companies are losing the ability to attract people from all over the world and are suffering from a substantial talent leak. 

It is no secret that the UK was already experiencing a talent shortage, even without the added pressure created by today’s political landscape. Technology is developing rapidly and demand for tech workers continues to outpace supply, creating a fiercely competitive hiring landscape.

The shortage of available tech talent has already created a deficit that could cost the UK £141 billion in GDP growth by 2028, stifling innovation. Now, with Brexit threatening the UK’s cosmopolitan tech landscape — and the economy at large — we may soon see international tech talent moving elsewhere; in fact, 60% of London businesses think they’ll lose access to tech talent once the UK leaves the EU.

So, how can UK-based companies proactively attract and retain top tech talent to prevent a Brexit brain drain? UK businesses must ensure that their hiring funnels are a top priority and focus on understanding what matters most to tech talent beyond salary, so that they don’t lose out to US tech hubs. 

Brexit aside, why is San Francisco more appealing than the UK?

 


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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Review of UK migration rules calls for more dev jobs to be fast-tracked

15:44 | 29 May

A public body that advises the UK government on immigration policy has recommended including more programming and software development jobs on the shortages occupation list which would make it easier for employers to bring in skilled tech talent from outside the European Union .

In a review of the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) published today by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), it advocates broadening the list to include all roles related to programming and software development, as well as suggesting web designers as a new addition — recognising the difficulty UK employers can have filling such roles.

The current SOL does include some IT jobs but more tightly defines those roles considered to be in shortage — and therefore to qualify for relative fast tracking through the immigration system.

The MAC’s proposed expansion of the SOL means it would cover some 9% of jobs in the UK labour market vs what is currently around 1%. It does not solely focus on tech jobs, with veterinarians, architects and health workers among the other occupations also recommended for inclusion.

In another recommendation the MAC suggests the removal of a condition restricting the recruitment of chefs via the SOL if they work at an establishment that offers a take-away service — perhaps a sign of the on-demand times, when startups like Deliveroo and JustEat have been expanding the pipeline of eateries that serve up take-out.

“Today’s labour market is very different to the one we reviewed when the last SOL was published in 2013,” writes MAC chair, professor Alan Manning, in a statement. “Unemployment is lower and employers in various industries are facing difficulties in finding skilled people to fill their vacancies. That is why we have recommended expanding the SOL to cover a range of occupations in health, information and engineering fields.”

If a job vacancy is on the SOL it means UK employers don’t need to run a resident labor market test, where they are required to advertise the role to the settled workforce for a set period of time and retain proof that they have done so — a process that adds bureaucracy, delay and cost to hiring migrants, as well as increasing compliance risk.

It also allows for lower wages to be paid vs roles not on the SOL. Shortage jobs are also prioritized vs non-SOL jobs which means they can be less affected by any binding immigration cap (i.e. because the monthly visa quota has been exceeded).

So the widening of programming roles on the SOL could be a boon for UK startups looking to expand their talent base — at least if the government moves quickly to implement the recommendations.

“We are grateful to the Migration Advisory Committee for a very comprehensive report. We will consider it carefully and respond in due course,” a Home Office spokesperson told us when asked for its response and any timeline for implementing the changes.

That said, even if the MAC’s recommendations are implemented quickly they are only likely be a stop-gap because the government has signalled its intent to move to a single points-based immigration system, post-brexit, once the UK has left the EU — publishing a white paper about the planned future skills-based system at the back end of last year. (At that point envisaging the new system would apply from 2021.)

The MAC notes that the revised SOL it’s now recommending would need to be looked at again to mesh with that future system.

“Our recommendations are clearly only applicable under the current immigration system, while EU free movement remains,” writes Manning. “We are recommending a full review of the SOL once there is a clearer picture of what the future immigration system will look like.”

So even with what looks like a little recruitment relief coming down the pipe for UK startups worried about filling skilled vacancies, the country’s immigration rules remain fogged by ongoing brexit uncertainty and the unknown parameters that will apply in a future system when both non-EU and EU migrants will be squeezed through the same government-controlled funnel.

 


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LocalGlobe co-founder Saul Klein says despite Brexit fears, the UK’s startup kids should be all right

15:58 | 29 November

While Brexit’s effects are dominating headlines in the UK and around the globe, the nation’s startup industry should emerge from the chaos relatively unscathed, according to longtime European venture investor Saul Klein .

A former partner at Index Ventures (and an employee at Skype back in the day), Klein is on to his next act as an early-stage investor alongside his father, Robin (who is, himself, a famous early-stage investor in technology) at LocalGlobe. 

Onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, Klein brushed off any potential impact that the exit of the UK from the European Union might have on startups and entrepreneurship for the country. Indeed, according to Klein, Britain’s startup kids are all right.

Given that roughly 85% of Klein’s portfolio at LocalGlobe is based in the UK, his take on Brexit’s potential impact better be right (for the sake of his fund).

But there’s data to back up Klein’s assertion of the ramifications of Brexit for the UK startup community. “We did a survey with a lot of other people in the ecosystem,” says Klein. “Only 9 percent of companies were thinking of moving. It hasn’t really changed behavior.”

From Klein’s perspective, industry observers need only look at the increasing capital commitments being made to UK startups. “[The] UK in 2016 had about $3.5 billion and the year after it had $7 billion or $8 billion. Venture is a 10- to 12-year bet. Anyone investing in the UK in 2017 and 2018 had heard of Brexit and priced that in.”

Beyond the current investments, the past indicators of Britain’s success loom large over the entire European startup industry. Roughly 40 percent of Europe and Israel’s unicorns hail from the UK and seven out of Europe’s top ten investment funds hail from the UK (based on the number of unicorns they’ve invested in), according to Klein.

Even immigration issues shouldn’t present a problem for Britain. “The UK is thinking about how do we get more highly skilled talent to the UK. Not less,” Klein says.

 


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Panasonic to move its European HQ out of the UK because Brexit

14:37 | 30 August

Chalk up yet another Brexit deficit: Japanese electronics firm Panasonic will be moving its European headquarters from the UK to Amsterdam in October because it’s worried about the tax implications if it stays, the Nikkei Asian Review reports.

The company is concerned it could face tax liabilities if the UK shifts its corporate tax regime as a result of Brexit.

Laurent Abadie, CEO of Panasonic Europe, told the publication Japan could treat the U.K. as a tax haven if the country lowers its corporate rate — as the government has indeed suggested it will to try to make itself a more attractive destination for businesses once it’s outside the European Union’s trading bloc.

In November 2016 the UK Prime Minister announced a review of the country’s corporate tax rate — saying the government could move to substantially cut the rate below the current 20%.

Prior to that, former chancellor George Osborne pledged to cut the rate to below 15%.

At the same time as announcing the rate review, the PM unveiled a package of business-focused measures — intended to try to quell fears around Brexit. Although a rate cut evidently isn’t friendly to every business.

In the case of Panasonic, it’s concerned that if the U.K. gets designated a tax-haven by Japan it could be saddled with back taxes back home. So moving to stay regionally headquartered within the European Union removes that risk.

Abadie also told the Nikkei Asian Review that moving its regional HQ to continental Europe will help it avoid any barriers to the flow of people and goods thrown up by Brexit.

The shape of any deal — or even whether there will be a deal between the UK and the EU, post-Brexit — still remains to be seen just a few months before the UK is scheduled to exit the EU, in March 2019. So businesses are having to make key decisions based on possible or potential outcomes.

Meanwhile the UK’s regulatory influence in the region continues to be diminished…

In terms of trade, access to talent, and regulatory influence, we're relegating ourselves to the second division.

— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt)

 


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Digital campaigning vs democracy: UK election regulator calls for urgent law changes

12:23 | 26 June

A report by the UK’s Electoral Commission has called for urgent changes in the law to increase transparency about how digital tools are being used for political campaigning, warning that an atmosphere of mistrust is threatening the democratic process.

The oversight body, which also regulates campaign spending, has spent the past year examining how digital campaigning was used in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum and 2017 general election — as well as researching public opinion to get voters’ views on digital campaigning issues.

Among the changes the Commission wants to see is greater clarity around election spending to try to prevent foreign entities pouring money into domestic campaigns, and beefed up financial regulations including bigger penalties for breaking election spending rules.

It also has an ongoing investigation into whether pro-Brexit campaigns — including the official Vote Leave campaign — broke spending rules. And last week the BBC reported on a leaked draft of the report suggesting the Commission will find the campaigns broke the law.

Last month the Leave.EU Brexit campaign was also fined £70,000 after a Commission investigation found it had breached multiple counts of electoral law during the referendum.

Given the far larger sums now routinely being spent on elections — another pro-Brexit group, Vote Leave, had a £7M spending limit (though it has also been accused of exceeding that) — it’s clear the Commission needs far larger teeth if it’s to have any hope of enforcing the law.

Digital tools have lowered the barrier of entry for election fiddling, while also helping to ramp up democratic participation.

“On digital campaigning, our starting point is that elections depend on participation, which is why we welcome the positive value of online communications. New ways of reaching voters are good for everyone, and we must be careful not to undermine free speech in our search to protect voters. But we also fully recognise the worries of many, the atmosphere of mistrust which is being created, and the urgent need for action to tackle this,” writes commission chair John Holmes.

“Funding of online campaigning is already covered by the laws on election spending and donations. But the laws need to ensure more clarity about who is spending what, and where and how, and bigger sanctions for those who break the rules.

“This report is therefore a call to action for the UK’s governments and parliaments to change the rules to make it easier for voters to know who is targeting them online, and to make unacceptable behaviour harder. The public opinion research we publish alongside this report demonstrates the level of concern and confusion amongst voters and the will for new action.”

The Commission’s key recommendations are:

  • Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should change the law so that digital material must have an imprint saying who is behind the campaign and who created it
  • Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should amend the rules for reporting spending. They should make campaigners sub-divide their spending returns into different types of spending. These categories should give more information about the money spent on digital campaigns
  • Campaigners should be required to provide more detailed and meaningful invoices from their digital suppliers to improve transparency
  • Social media companies should work with us to improve their policies on campaign material and advertising for elections and referendums in the UK
  • UK election and referendum adverts on social media platforms should be labelled to make the source clear. Their online databases of political adverts should follow the UK’s rules for elections and referendums
  • Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should clarify that spending on election or referendum campaigns by foreign organisations or individuals is not allowed. They would need to consider how it could be enforced and the impact on free speech
  • We will make proposals to campaigners and each of the UK’s governments about how to improve the rules and deadlines for reporting spending. We want information to be available to voters and us more quickly after a campaign, or during
  • Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should increase the maximum fine we can sanction campaigners for breaking the rules, and strengthen our powers to obtain information outside of an investigation

The recommendations follow revelations by Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower (pictured at the top of this post) — who has detailed to journalists and regulators how Facebook users’ personal data was obtained and passed to the now defunct political consultancy for political campaigning activity without people’s knowledge or consent.

In addition to the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, Facebook has also been rocked by earlier revelations of how extensively Kremlin-backed agents used its ad targeting tools to try to sew social division at scale — including targeting the 2016 US presidential election.

The Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has since been called before US and EU lawmakers to answer questions about how his platform operates and the risks it’s posing to democratic processes.

The company has announced a series of changes intended to make it more difficult for third parties to obtain user data, and to increase transparency around political advertising — adding a requirement for such ads to continue details of how has paid for them, for example, and also offering a searchable archive.

Although critics question whether the company is going far enough — asking, for example, how it intends to determine what is and is not a political advert.

Facebook is not offering a searchable archive for all ads on its platform, for example.

Zuckerberg has also been accused of equivocating in the face of lawmakers’ concerns, with politicians on both sides of the Atlantic calling him out for providing evasive, misleading or obfuscating in responses to their concerns and questions around how the platform operates.

The Electoral Commission makes a direct call for social media firms to do more to increase transparency around digital political advertising and remove messages which “do not meet the right standards”.

“If this turns out to be insufficient, the UK’s governments and parliaments should be ready to consider direct regulation,” it also warns. 

We’ve reached out to Facebook comment and will update this post with any response.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman told us it would send the government response to the Electoral Commission report shortly — so we’ll also update this post when we have that.

The UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, has an ongoing investigating into the use of social media data for political campaigning — and commissioner Elizabeth Denham has also called for stronger disclosure rules around political ads and a code of conduct for social media firms.

The body is expected to publish the results of its long-running investigation shortly.

At the same time, a DCMS committee has been running an inquiry into the impact of fake news and disinformation online, including examining the impact on the political process — and will also publish a report in the coming months.

Committee chair Damian Collins

 today to say the inquiry has “also highlighted how out of date our election laws are in a world increasingly dominated by big tech media”.

On the forthcoming Brexit campaign spending report, an Electoral Commission spokesperson told us: “In accordance with its Enforcement Policy, the Electoral Commission has written to Vote Leave, Mr Darren Grimes and Veterans for Britain to advise each campaigner of the outcome of the investigation announced on 20 November 2017. The campaigners have 28 days to make representations before final decisions are taken. The Commission will announce the outcome of the investigation and publish an investigation report once this final decision has been taken.”

 


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