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.