The defunct political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica provided services for the Leave campaign ahead of the Brexit referendum, according to internal emails submitted to the British parliament. The findings directly contradict claims by Brexit groups Leave.EU and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) that the firm did not help them target voters.
The emails, between Cambridge Analytica and the two groups, were presented to parliament by Brittany Kaiser, the company’s former director of business development, according to Politico. Kaiser said that Leave.EU’s campaign used datasets created by the firm to target online political messages to receptive voters.
The firm was never paid for its efforts, and the groups have repeatedly denied ever paying the company for work. A number of public statements from Leave.EU cofounder Arron Banks had said they did hire Cambridge Analytica, but he later backtracked to clarify that it had neither paid them nor signed a contract with them.
“Chargeable work was completed for UKIP and Leave.EU, and I have strong reasons to believe that those data sets and analyzed data processed by Cambridge Analytica … were later used by the Leave.EU campaign without Cambridge Analytica’s further assistance,” Kaiser told Damian Collins, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee.
The committee has been holding hearings on the matter for the past 18 months, since shortly after the March 2018 revelations that the firm had improperly acquired personal data from 87 million Facebook users, the vast majority of which did not consent and were unaware their data was being shared. The US has now fined Facebook $5 billion (£4.1 billion) over the incident.
The new revelations around the Brexit campaign come as social media platforms like Facebook face more scrutiny from the public and from governments over both their handling of user data, and over how that data has been manipulated by political groups to target voters. In the US, Cambridge Analytica helped the Trump campaign ahead of the 2016 election.
“Data profiling of voters was done at a more sophisticated level in the referendum than ever before. It’s a big concern, we should pass emergency legislation to mandate transparency in political campaigns,” Collins said, speaking to Politico.
The emails discussed early-stage voter analysis conducted by the firm, as well as concerns within the groups that their efforts were in violation of the UK’s data protection rules.
According to Collins:
“There are important questions to follow up, in particular whether the data sets created by Cambridge Analytica were used in the referendum or other campaigns and if they were, whether or not it was a breach of data protection law for UKIP voter data to be used in this way – that certainly seems to be something that they themselves were concerned about.”