Cambridge Analytica's Crime Was Not Violating Your Privacy Or Taking Data From Facebook, It Was A Massive Campaign Finance Scam

from the get-the-scandals-right dept

If you asked most people what the Cambridge Analytica scandal was about, many would insist that it involved the company illegally sucking up all sorts of data from Facebook and using that to nefariously micro-target people with ads or information in a way that supported Donald Trump or suppressed the interest in voting for Hillary Clinton. As we pointed out years ago, it seemed like everyone was very much misinterpreting what happened with Cambridge Analytica.

The reality is now coming out, but so many people are so bought into the original myth story that I doubt it will get much attention. First off, over in the UK, government investigators have now admitted that Cambridge Analytica didn't really do anything special or have any access to data that lots of others had:

Detail of the data processing practices undertaken by SCL/CA is set out at Annex 2, but, in summary, we concluded that SCL/CA were purchasing significant volumes of commercially available personal data (at one estimate over 130 billion data points), in the main about millions of US voters, to combine it with the Facebook derived insight information they had obtained from an academic at Cambridge University, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, and elsewhere. In the main their models were also built from ‘off the shelf’ analytical tools and there was evidence that their own staff were concerned about some of the public statements the leadership of the company were making about their impact and influence.

Basically, the company was buying up a ton of data that lots of others also had access to and using off-the-shelf analytical tools that lots of others had access too... but then puffing themselves up to have some sort of secret sauce. They had none.

That doesn't mean there weren't issues though. But the issues were not so much about Facebook coughing up this data to Cambridge Analytica, but rather how Cambridge Analytica was actually a tool for the Mercer family to engage in campaign finance violations by illegally coordinating between a Mercer-created super PAC and the Trump Campaign. As you hopefully know, the whole concept of super PACs is based on the idea that they cannot coordinate with the actual campaigns. Most people recognize that in practice, this is bullshit but they at least try to maintain an appearance of separation. It now appears that the Mercers did no such thing, and Cambridge Analytica was at the center of it all.

A megadonor like Robert Mercer may only contribute millions to a super PAC if it operates independently of—and does not coordinate with—the candidate that it supports.

By the Mercer-owned Cambridge Analytica simultaneously working for the campaign and the super PAC, it was in a position to use strategic information gained from its work for Trump to develop and target the super PAC’s ads supporting Trump.

Federal law limits how a vendor may work for both a candidate and a super PAC backing that candidate. Unless a “common vendor” like Cambridge Analytica creates and complies with an internal firewall separating its work for the candidate from the work for the super PAC, it can act as a conduit for unlawful coordination.

Usually, it can be difficult to assess whether a vendor firewalled their work for the campaign from the super PAC because companies are not required to make their firewall policies public, and they tend to avoid disclosing details about internal operations.

Yet the newly published documents suggest a striking overlap between Cambridge Analytica’s work for Trump and for the Mercer-backed pro-Trump super PAC, which indicates that any firewall policy was not followed.

In other words, there's a real scandal here, but it's not a "Facebook data" scandal, so much as it's a Mercer/Trump campaign finance violation scandal.

However, I'll bet that years into the future, people will remember the other non-scandal instead of what appears to be the real issue.

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Filed Under: campaign finance, data, donald trump, mercer family, privacy, robert mercer, steve bannon, superpac
Companies: cambridge analytica, facebook, scl


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  • identicon
    David, 20 Oct 2020 @ 10:59am

    But what about

    What about Hillary Obama's email spying on the Trump campaign? Eh, eh?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 20 Oct 2020 @ 11:28am

    • Look what horrible thing these guys have done with the personal data facebook made available to them
    • no they didn't this data is available to others too, and they didn't do anything illegal
    • you never really said what they did wasn't horrible
    • but it wasn't illegal and the data is easily available to others to lots of people can do the same thing legally
    • ... this is what I'm saying!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Oct 2020 @ 12:53pm

      Re:

      Don't confuse two separate arguments. What Facebook did with people data was illegal and still is, and Schrems 1 and 2 are the demonstration. The highest court in EU said, multiple times, that Facebook violates the European privacy law. And the UK is still part of the EU to this day. As for the actual "secret sauce" of Cambridge Analytica, there may have been indeed very little result. And surely the campaign financing rules were also violated. But saying that Facebook does not breaks privacy laws in Europe is wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      anon, 20 Oct 2020 @ 2:30pm

      Re:

      Didn't Facebook boot them for improperly (according to the rules they were supposed to follow) accessing user data?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    The Guy Who Wants A Real Image with this Post, 20 Oct 2020 @ 12:46pm

    Add a photo of Mercer

    And I'll share it on FB.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bobvious, 20 Oct 2020 @ 2:48pm

    So was Cambridge Analytica

    just acting as a Mercer-nary?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nunya, 23 Oct 2020 @ 9:15am

    Cambridge Analytica's Crime WAS Violating Your Privacy

    Getting tired of articles that act like it's a bigger deal that some faceless business or financial was hurt instead of people. People matter more than business. Without people there is no business. PRIVACY MATTERS. CONSENT MATTERS. And almost everything matters more than businesses screwing each other over.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2020 @ 10:33am

      Re: Cambridge Analytica's Crime WAS Violating Your Privacy

      Stow your misplaced anger - it is well known that Cambridge Analytica is scummy and implied by the campaign finance issues. The fact investigators couldn't find anything illegal in the data gathering is big news. Stop getting salty over reality not fitting your narrative - there are still ample privacy reform ideas but please for the love of god think them through instead of knee jerking at the latest boogeyman.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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