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

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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.

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The Strange Reason I Facebook-Stalk My Ex’s New Girlfriend

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YourTango

I think we can all agree that the internet has made it much, much harder to get over a breakup.

Sure, you may have successfully erased his number from your phone, used his junior high football T-shirt as a rag, put away all your couple photos, ordered him never to call again, and cursed him to hell, but all of that effort is almost a waste considering he’s just a click of the mouse away. 

After a while, though, watching how he’s growing in the midriff via Facebook photos loses its luster. You already know almost everything about him anyway, after all that time you spent/wasted. But what about his new girlfriend? She’s someone to be curious about. 

RELATED: I Hired A Private Investigator To Spy On My Ex’s New Girlfriend

I’m not proud of this—as I am not proud of oh-so-many things I’ve admitted to but I am kind of obsessed with my ex’s new girlfriend.

Not in an Alicia Silverstone in The Crush sort of way—I am not going to trap the chick in a shed and set a hive of bees on her to attack. That would be crazy!

No, I just like to look at her Facebook page sometimes. It’s been set to private ever since the day I told my ex that I suspected he was lying to me about his relationship with her. He must have told her I was onto them because suddenly I didn’t have as much access to this mysterious girl I’d only ever met twice, who slipped in and changed my life without me noticing. 

I don’t blame her entirely, or even mostly. I blame him and, to a certain degree, I blame myself. But, I mean, I kind of blame her. We met! Twice! My ex made a point of telling me I would like her! (Red flag, FYI, ladies!) She seemed enthused to meet me! She seemed nice.

Two weeks before my ex pulled the plug on our relationship—and coincidentally the day before the two of them went on a business trip together—she even had drinks with us and his mom. It never occurred to me that something was amiss. 

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Stock of The Week: Meta

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Stock of The Week: Meta

Meta topped estimates for its latest fourth quarter and is Stock of the Week. Cheddar News breaks down its results.

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Smear campaign targets nominee who would be FCC’s first openly gay commissioner

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Smear campaign targets nominee who would be FCC’s first openly gay commissioner

A campaign to block the appointment of a commissioner to the Federal Communications Commission has turned ugly.

Gigi Sohn, who was first nominated in October 2021 to complete the FCC’s lineup of five commissioners, was recently the target of articles by DailyMail.com and FoxNews.com that sought to connect her work with a leading digital rights group to sex trafficking and a dominatrix. Sohn is on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, a widely respected nonprofit that advocates for privacy and free expression online.

Those articles came after what has been a particularly long wait to have Sohn approved by the Senate, and they’ve triggered growing outrage.

“The press stories ginned up by Ms. Sohn’s opponents are beneath scurrilous and are beneath the dignity of this Committee,” wrote Preston Padden, a former president of ABC Television Network and a founding executive of Fox Broadcast Co., in a recent letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. 

Both articles referred to the EFF’s opposition to a law known as FOSTA-SESTA that aimed to crack down on websites for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking that was opposed by much of the tech community. The Daily Mail also pointed out that the EFF honored a dominatrix with its “pioneer award” for what the nonprofit said was her “research into sex work and equitable access to technology from a public health perspective” in relation to FOSTA-SESTA.

Padden, in a phone interview with NBC News, emphasized how shocked he was by the articles.

“I’m old. I started doing legal lobbying work in the industry in 1973,” Padden, who is now the principal of the consulting firm Boulder Thinking, said. “And I have never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen anything like the micro targeting of senators to try to defeat a nomination. And I’ve never seen anything like this smear campaign.”

I’ve never seen anything like this smear campaign.

Preston Padden, a former president of ABC Television Network and a founding executive of Fox Broadcast Co

It remains unclear who or what was behind the articles by the Daily Mail and Fox News.

Neither the Daily Mail nor Fox News responded to a request for comment. 

Sohn declined to comment.

The campaign against Sohn had already moved beyond traditional Washington lobbying. 

The American Accountability Foundation, which calls itself a “nonprofit government oversight and research organization that uses investigative tools to educate the public on issues related to personnel, policy and spending,” first called for the withdrawal of Sohn’s nomination in February 2022. A New Yorker investigation from April tied the foundation to a variety of aggressive political attacks on Biden nominees including Justice Ketanji Brown Jackon as well as many lower-profile nominees. The foundation’s website invites visitors to read what it calls the “hit piece” published by The New Yorker. The group’s funding is private.

An NBC News review of Facebook’s “Ad Library” showed that the American Accountability Foundation has spent at least $229,000 on ads attacking Sohn since April 2022, according to estimates published by Facebook, with 12 ads having been launched on Jan. 25 and 26. 

The most recent ads from the foundation prior to that recent purchase appeared in November. Most of the ads label Sohn as “too extreme” or her views on police reform, which are not relevant to her work at the FCC but have drawn scrutiny. Almost all the Facebook ads the foundation ran in the second half of 2022 and thus far in 2023 targeted Sohn.

The American Accountability Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

The Fraternal Order of Police has taken issue with her “animus toward law enforcement officers” and her ties to the Electronic Frontier Foundation because of its promotion of encryption for messaging apps.

Jim Pascoe, the order’s  executive director, told NBC News that his organization did not coordinate with any other group in attacking Sohn, and that he simply opposes Sohn because he believes law enforcement should be able to break encryption in times of emergency. The FCC does not have oversight of that issue. 

“If the FCC had a role, we would certainly be alarmed if she was a part of that role,” he said.

The nomination of Sohn, who would be the FCC’s first openly gay commissioner, languished in a Senate committee where united Republican opposition and inconsistent Democratic support have made her confirmation a low priority. President Joe Biden renominated her in early January.

“Chairwoman [Jessica] Rosenworcel believes Gigi Sohn is a knowledgeable nominee with a long record of commitment to the issues before the FCC,” Paloma Perez, the FCC’s press secretary, said in an emailed statement. “She has consistently re-iterated that the Commission was designed to have five commissioners and looks forward to that day.”

The already contentious nomination process went from aggressive to ugly with the articles about Sohn, which alarmed many of her allies and even some of her professional rivals.

Gary Shapiro, the president of the Consumer Technology Association, a large pro-business lobbyist group, has butted heads with Sohn for years over various issues.

But he said the recent articles about Sohn cross a line.

“There’s a little homophobia going on here. It’s whispered around in the Senate,” Shapiro said. “And that’s a shame. It’s no secret that Gigi would be the first openly gay FCC commissioner. I like to think as a country we’re past that, but apparently we’re not. This smear campaign, it’s been two years already.”

I like to think as a country we’re past that, but apparently we’re not. This smear campaign, it’s been two years already.

Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association

“I think a major injustice is being done here to a super high-quality person,” Shapiro added.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has also praised Sohn. “Between her years working on behalf of regular Americans who lack affordable, reliable access to the internet and her experience inside the government, Gigi Sohn is the epitome of what an FCC commissioner should be,” he said in a statement days after the Daily Mail and Fox News articles were published. “No amount of astroturfed attacks on behalf of the Big Cable companies will change that. Ms. Sohn has broad support from across the political spectrum and should be confirmed as quickly as possible.”

Sohn’s holdup means the FCC is unable to make some major moves, most notably around a law put in place by the Biden administration. 

Biden’s infrastructure bill, signed in November 2021, prohibits internet providers from discriminating against customers based on categories like race, a practice that scholars and journalists have repeatedly verified as a problem.

The law leaves it to the FCC to decide, by this November, how to define that discrimination, a decision that could cost the internet provider industry billions of dollars.

“This is a multibillion dollar-regulatory decision,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who specializes in some of the topics the FCC regulates, particularly internet access. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had a federal law that explicitly stated broadband access has to be given to people equally, regardless of their income, race, and a number of other protected classes.”

Industry players like AT&T have argued they prefer a definition that requires explicit evidence of intent to discriminate, like internal emails of executives saying they intend to discriminate against certain people. Many Democrats and public rights groups want to define it by evidence of who gets worse internet access, pointing to studies and investigative reports that show providers often offer high-speed internet in richer, white neighborhoods and slower speeds in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. 

The FCC would be unlikely to pass rules promoting the access definition without Sohn or another Democrat to complete that majority.

Alex Byers, director of communications and public relations at ATT, said in an email: “We have not taken a position on Gigi Sohn’s nomination, have not asked any third-party organization to take a position, and have not funded any campaigns against her nomination.”

One lobbyist who works on telecommunications issues said that pressure from police groups had taken a toll, most notably with Democratic senators who ran for re-election in 2022. Now, she faces the same issues with some who are up for re-election in 2024.

“You’ve got a couple of [Democratic] senators, last time it was folks up in 2022, who were afraid to vote for her because of some of the comments she’s made or positions that she’s taken that got her crosswise with law enforcement,” the lobbyist, who asked to withhold their name to discuss private conversations, said. “Now, the ‘24s are up. … If you lose two it’s done.”

The FCC is an independent government agency tasked with regulating interstate communications that started out overseeing the emergence of radio and eventually adding the television, satellite and wireless industries. Commissioner nominations for the FCC are usually dull affairs that rarely make news outside of trade publications. 

The FCC has five commissioners nominated by the president and approved by the Senate, with a partisan slant to whichever party holds the Oval Office. During President Donald Trump’s term, the FCC counted three Republican commissioners to two Democrats. During President Barack Obama’s term, there were three Democrats and two Republicans.

Biden’s FCC has been different, frozen at two Democrats, two Republicans and one empty seat. That leaves the FCC essentially frozen, unable to make major moves. It’s a situation that suits the major telecommunications companies just fine, with their primary regulator in suspended animation.

Sohn’s appointment once looked straightforward. Sohn is well known in the telecom world, having worked under FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler from 2013 to 2016. Jessica Rosenworcel, who Biden nominated as FCC chair at the same time he nominated Sohn as a commissioner, easily passed a Senate vote in December 2021.

And while Sohn did draw rebukes from some Republicans, she did receive some support from right-leaning news outlets Newsmax and One America News network

More than a year later, Sohn has yet to receive a Senate confirmation vote. A third committee hearing was scheduled and then delayed.

“And that’s the definition of success for the lobbyists,” Wheeler said in a phone interview. “When the regulated get to pick their regulator, and delay the establishment of a democratic vote, they succeed in neutering the agency.”

FCC nominations can get contentious and have become a bit more high profile in recent years, most notably as internet regulation and net neutrality issues have gained national attention. And some have taken a while to go through. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blocked Wheeler’s Senate confirmation out of concerns that he would push for more transparency around political TV ad buys.

Many who follow the FCC noted the aggressive lobbying of major telecom companies. Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of the media advocacy nonprofit Free Press, said the current situation is beneficial for them.

“A 2-2 commission, like a split Republican-Democrat Congress, is good for them, because it means that less regulations are likely to flow and they will have to do less,” Gonzalez said. “This is all about them, minimizing the amount of money they have to spend and maximizing the amount of money they can make, and keeping the commission at bay by not allowing Biden to have his nominees confirmed is an effective strategy for all of the above.”

The telecom industry is among the most enterprising with its lobbying. Telecom companies spent more than $117 million on lobbying in 2022, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in U.S. politics. Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal and NBC News, spent more than $14 million.

Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokesperson, referred to an earlier company statement on Sohn, which said she “would bring her tireless advocacy on the critical issue of connecting all Americans to broadband back to the FCC. We have long shared that commitment.”

Comcast did not answer questions about whether it had lobbied against Sohn.

There could be some momentum to get Sohn across the finish line. Padden, the former media executive, said he had recently emailed with Rupert Murdoch, his former boss, about Sohn. Murdoch had expressed “some misgivings about her candidacy.”

Padden said he told Murdoch about her experiences working with Sohn, most notably on securing FCC waivers needed to launch the Fox broadcast network.

“I explained that to Mr. Murdoch. And his response to me was ‘I stand corrected,’” Padden said. “Now, he didn’t say he loved her, and he didn’t say he wanted to see her on the FCC, but he did say ‘I stand corrected.’”

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