Ross Colquhoun: Questions of FB data exploitation reach closer to home

The London premises of Cambridge Analytica were searched yesterday. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
The London premises of Cambridge Analytica were searched yesterday. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
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The global political order has once again been rocked. This time digitally. Former Cambridge Analytica employee and now whistle-blower Christopher Wylie has disclosed, or at least strongly alleged, that the company illegally scraped data from Facebook in order to influence election outcomes.

Wylie has also stated that researchers developed a technique to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook. And that researchers paid users a small amount of money to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would then scrape some private information from their profiles and those of their friends, the latter being without their explicit permission.

The SNP takes a responsible approach to using personal information shared by our supporters both online and offline. We use some relevant contact information that people have opted to provide us with to keep them informed about our latest news, policy updates, broadcasts, volunteer opportunities, and events.

Around 1 in 34 people of voting age in Scotland are members of the SNP. Each member can help to drive political engagement and amplify our message to help it to reach people online across Scotland. Our digital strategy is designed to support and complement our ground campaigns. This strategy has worked well for us and we remain committed to staying ahead of the curve on this.

Like all political parties, during campaigns the SNP creates tailored targeted adverts to reach those outside of our organic reach on various website and social media platforms. Buying advertising space like this means our messages can be seen by those that are not following our supporters and the content they share. Nothing untoward here, it’s just like the adverts we see in newspapers or television.

What Cambridge Analytica are alleged to have got up to is a million miles away from this. With numerous strands of this story leading to the Oval Office, all the focus at present is on questions needing answered and links needing to be understood across the pond.

In time though, the focus needs to and must come home. Was the Brexit referendum won by those very practices which Cambridge Analytica deployed?

The scandal raises fresh questions about the role of a secretive Scottish Tory-linked organisation, the Constitutional Research Council. Richard Cook’s firm was responsible for a £425,000 donation to the DUP’s Brexit campaign – £32,000 of which was spent on the Canadian firm AggregateIQ, that is reportedly linked to Cambridge Analytica.

There is also the curious case of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories. Its founding Chairman was a former Conservative MP and it has been run by the Chairman of the Oxford Conservative Association. A former Tory party treasurer is a shareholder and a director have donated over £700,000 to Tory party. The links to the Conservative party seem to go on and on.

Number 10 said on Wednesday that the UK government had stopped working with SCL Group, in 2015. However, it appears that the Ministry of Defence paid £42,000 to a branch of the company for “data analytics” between December and February.

It remains to be seen how this plays out. Only time, further excellent journalism - like we have seen from the Guardian, Channel 4 News and numerous independent investigative journalists in the past week – and perhaps the courts – will tell.

Ross Colquhoun is head of digital for the SNP.