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‘We’re waiting for answers’: Facebook, Brexit and 40 questions | Technology

‘We’re waiting for answers’: Facebook, Brexit and 40 questions | Technology


Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, was the second executive Facebook offered up to answer questions from parliament’s select committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

He took his place in the hot seat in the wake of the first attendee, Simon Milner, Facebook’s (now ex-) head of policy for Europe, who answered a series of questions about Cambridge Analytica’s non-use of Facebook data that came back to haunt the company in the furore that followed the Observer and New York Times revelations from Christopher Wylie.

Schroepfer is Facebook’s nerd-in-chief. He was the tech guy sent to answer a series of questions from MPs about how his platform had facilitated what appeared to be a wholesale assault on Britain’s democracy, and though there was much he couldn’t answer, when he was asked about spending by Russian entities directed at British voters before the referendum, he spoke confidently: “We did look several times at the connections between the IRA [the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency] … and the EU referendum and we found $1 of spend. We found almost nothing.”

But new evidence released by the United States Congress suggests adverts were targeted at UK Facebook users, and paid for in roubles, in the months preceding the short 10-week period “regulated” by the Electoral Commission but when the long campaigns were already under way.

This is the latest episode in a series of miscommunications between the company and British legislators, which has come to a head in the week the Electoral Commission finally published the findings of its investigation into the Leave.EU campaign.

Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS committee, said: “We asked them to look for evidence of Russian influence and they came back and told us something we now know appears misleading. And we’re still waiting for answers to 40 questions that Mike Schroepfer was unable to answer, including if they have any record of any dark ads.

“It could be that these adverts are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just so hard getting any sort of information out of them, and then not knowing if that information is complete.”



Leave.EU supporters celebrate the Leave vote in Sunderland after polling stations closed in the Brexit referendum. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Preliminary research undertaken by Twitter user Brexitshambles suggests anti-immigrant adverts were targeted at Facebook users in the UK and the US.

One – headlined “You’re not the only one to despise immigration”, which cost 4,884 roubles (£58) and received 4,055 views – was placed in January 2016. Another, which accused immigrants of stealing jobs, cost 5,514 roubles and received 14,396 impressions. Organic reach can mean such adverts are seen by a wider audience.

Facebook says that it only looked for adverts shown during the officially regulated campaign period. A spokesperson said: “The release of the set of IRA adverts confirms the position we shared with the Electoral Commission and DCMS committee. We did not find evidence of any significant, coordinated activity by the IRA operatives directed towards the Brexit referendum.

“This is supported by the release of this data set which shows a significant amount of activity by the IRA with only a handful of their ads listing the UK as a possible audience.”

Collins said that the committee was becoming increasingly frustrated by Facebook’s reluctance to answer questions and by founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ongoing refusal to come to the UK to testify.

Milner told the committee in February that Cambridge Analytica had no Facebook data and could not have got data from Facebook.

The news reinforces MPs’ frustrations with a system that last week many of them were describing as “broken”. On Friday, 15 months after the first Observer article that triggered the Electoral Commission’s investigation into Leave.EU was published, it found the campaign – funded by Arron Banks and endorsed by Nigel Farage – guilty of multiple breaches of electoral law and referred the “responsible person” – its chief executive, Liz Bilney – to the police.

Banks described the commission’s report as a “politically motivated attack on Brexit”.

Leading academics and MPs called the delay in referring the matter to the police “catastrophic”, with others saying British democracy had failed. Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow digital minister, described the current situation as “akin to the situation with rotten boroughs” in the 19th century. “It’s at that level. What we’re seeing is a wholesale failure of the entire system. We have 20th-century bodies fighting a 21st-century challenge to our democracy. It’s totally lamentable.”

Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP for Aberavon, said it was unacceptable that the Electoral Commission had still not referred the evidence about Vote Leave from Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni – published in the Observer and submitted to the Electoral Commission – to the police. He said: “What they seem to have done, and are continuing to do, is to kick this into the long grass. There seems to be political pressure to kick this down the road until Britain has exited the EU.”

He accused the commission of ignoring what he considered key evidence, including about Cambridge Analytica. The commission had found Leave.EU guilty of not declaring work done by its referendum strategist, Goddard Gunster, but said it had found no evidence of work done by Cambridge Analytica.

“The whole thing stinks,” Kinnock said. “I wrote to the commission with evidence that the value of work carried out by Cambridge Analytica was around £800,000. The glib way it dismissed the multiple pieces of evidence about the company was extraordinary. I just think it is absolutely not fit for purpose.”

Gavin Millar QC, a leading expert in electoral law at Matrix Chambers, said: “Our entire democratic system is vulnerable and wide open to attack. If we allow this kind of money into campaigning on national basis – and the referendum was the paradigm for this – you have to have an organisation with teeth to police it.”

Damian Tambini, director of research in the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics, described the whole system as broken and said there was not a single investigatory body that seemed capable of uncovering the truth. “The DCMS Select Committee has found itself in this extraordinary position of, in effect, leading this investigation because it at least has the power to compel witnesses and evidence – something the Electoral Commission can’t do. It’s the classic British solution of muddling through.

“The big picture here is it’s possible for an individual or group with lots of money and some expertise to change the course of history and buy an election outcome. And with our regulatory system, we’ll never know if it’s happened.”

This article was amended on 13 May 2018 to clarify that a remark from Damian Tambini referred to the DCMS Select Committee.





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Arron Banks, the insurers and my strange data trail | Technology

Arron Banks, the insurers and my strange data trail | Technology


If a 29-year-old Peugeot 309 is the answer, it’s fair to wonder: what on earth is the question? In fact, I had no idea about either the question or the answer when I submitted a “subject access request” to Eldon Insurance Services in December last year. Or that my car – a vehicle that dates from the last millennium – could hold any sort of clue to anything. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, however, in pursuing the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s that however weird things look, they can always get weirder.

Because I was simply seeking information, as I have for the last 16-plus months, about what the Leave campaigns did during the referendum – specifically, what they did with data. And the subject access request – a legal mechanism I’d learned about from Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician and data expert – was a shot in the dark.

Under British data protection laws, “data subjects” – you and me – have the right to ask companies or organisations what personal information about them they hold. And, a series of incidents had led me to wonder what, if any, personal information Leave.EU – the campaign headed by Nigel Farage and bankrolled by Arron Banks, a Bristol-based businessman – may have held on me. By the time I submitted my request in December, I’d already been writing about them and their relationship with Cambridge Analytica for almost a year – the first piece in February triggering two investigations by the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

But, in November, I appeared to touch a nerve. Leave.EU’s persistent but mostly lighthearted attacks on my work began to change in tone. Conservative MPs had started to criticise the government’s Brexit plans, it had been revealed that Robert Mueller was investigating Cambridge Analytica, and it was in the middle of this that Leave.EU put out a video: a spoof video that showed me being beaten up and threatened with a gun. It was intended to creep me out. And it did. What else, I wondered, did Leave.EU have planned? What else did it know about me? And where had it come from? Companies House shows dozens of companies registered in Banks’s name and variants of his name – Aaron Banks, Aron Fraser Andrew Banks, Arron Andrew Fraser Banks, to name three – including a private investigations firm, Precision Risk and Intelligence Ltd. Andy Wigmore – a director of Eldon and Leave.EU’s spokesman – had told me previously that all insurance firms had access to police databases for fraud prevention purposes.

So, on 17 December last year I submitted a request to Liz Bilney, chief executive of both Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance Services, that asked for the personal information held on me by 19 of Banks’s companies.



Email to an employee requesting artwork to make Carole look ‘manic’. It was subsequently used in a Leave.EU tweet.

The letter triggered a steam of abuse, Banks and Wigmore revealing the contents of my letter in a series of tweets. The next day, I complained to the ICO that my attempt to access my private data, as is my right under British law, had been disclosed publicly and used as the basis to attack me further. The ICO found them to be “likely” in breach of the Data Protection Act and said it had written to notify them. Bilney asked me to pay £170 – you can charge up to £10 for each request by law – and just over a month later I received two folders of data, one relating to the personal information held on me by Leave.EU and the other by Eldon Insurance Services.

The second folder was a surprise. And not just to me. “We have no information on you dopey! You are a political adversary not a customer…” Banks had tweeted at me. And when I’d complained, he said: “You aren’t a customer, we don’t hold any data on you and frankly a journalist asking questions isn’t private, dopey!”

He was right: I wasn’t an Eldon customer. But there it was: my Eldon data, a spreadsheet, that showed it had gathered 12 different sets of data on me from three different sources. These were identified by different codes and a legend supplied with the spreadsheet revealed the codes represented software companies. And there was my data: Eldon had my name, age, address, email address, friends and family who had been on my car insurance and how I had been scored for risk.

How did Eldon have it? And where did it come from? Was I – or had I been – a customer of Eldon at some point? I hadn’t, it turned out, but a search of my inbox revealed that on 27 July last year, I’d taken out car insurance on the basis of a quote I’d obtained from Moneysupermarket.com. The telling detail was that it was sent at 13.34, the same time as the final entry on the spreadsheet.

I had given Moneysupermarket.com all sorts of private information: my home, car, personal relationships, and it had passed that private, sensitive information on to Eldon.

Going back to Moneysupermarket, I could see that I’d consented to my data being shared with its partners when I sought quotes and that, according to the terms and conditions it had set out, it could share it if it wanted.

Two months earlier, I’d spent 72 hours getting increasingly unsettled by the video Leave.EU put out and which, despite hundreds of complaints from people, it had refused to take down. Banks had previously told me that “I wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia” and both he and Leave.EU had made a habit of retweeting personal attacks directed at me by the Russian Embassy’s Twitter account. The video, showing a photoshopped image of me being hit in the face to the music of the Russian national anthem, went up the same week the Telegraph launched an attack on “Brexit mutineers”. Brendan Cox – the widow of Jo Cox – said that it created “a context where violence is more likely”. Another Leave.EU tweet called them a “cancer”. The atmosphere was ugly. And the video felt threatening. I felt threatened. It wasn’t so much that it had been put up, but that it stayed up – only coming down, eventually, when the Observer’s editors intervened.

I tell the story at length because this is the context in which I found out this information. And because it turns out that my experience may not be unique. Moneysupermarket responded: “Our providers use the personal information from our customers to generate personalised quotes for the service they have asked for (such as quoting for car insurance) and are not allowed to use this information for anything else unless they have permission from the customer.”

But I had given my consent and it shared my information in accordance with its privacy policy. In its annual report, it reveals it holds data on 24.9 million people – half the British electorate.

A post-Brexit advert for Eldon Insurance.



A post-Brexit advert for Eldon Insurance.

My disquiet about what information companies and organisations hold on me, and how it might be used, is a disquiet that, in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should perhaps be felt by everyone.

Or at least raise questions. Questions, such as: what private information do Banks’s companies hold on you? Where did it come from? How might it have been used?

Last week an ex-director of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, made explosive new claims in testimony to MPs. She appeared before the select committee for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and told MPs that, despite ferocious denials repeated for more than a year, Cambridge Analytica did process data for Leave.EU and Ukip. It did carry out work for the campaign, she said.

But she also told MPs – and submitted evidence – that she had been asked to devise a strategy to combine Ukip, Leave.EU and Eldon insurance data to politically profile people. What’s more, she said, she visited Eldon’s call centre and HQ in Bristol, which had also served as the campaign HQ for Leave.EU, and seen with her “own eyes” how Eldon employees used Eldon data to target people with political messages.

If true, Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer who specialises in data rights, says it would be a scandal on the level of the one now engulfing Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Because my attempt to find something as benign and unavoidable as a new insurance deal – just like millions of others – for my Peugeot had inadvertently revealed personal data they potentially had access to.

“It’s what Christopher Wylie has been saying about the weaponisation of data,” says Naik. “The idea that by doing something fundamental to your day-to-day life could have led to sensitive personal information being used in ways you don’t know about, let alone consented to.”

Banks told the Observer that Kaiser’s evidence “was a tissue of lies”, that she had visited Eldon’s offices only once, that the call centre handled calls from the public or those who followed Leave.EU on social media, and that the company “absolutely refutes” that any insurance data was used in the campaign. He said: “Eldon has never given… any data to Leave.EU, they are separate entities with strong data control rules. And vice versa.”

The folder containing my Eldon data was one of two I received back. The other marked Leave.EU contained all sorts of odd material: emails I’d sent Banks and Wigmore, and replies they’d sent to me. Emails they’d sent employees about me. Emails about mocking up Photoshopped images of me to put out on Twitter.

Typical is this one from 13 December, in which Wigmore writes: “Can we get a picture of carole codswallop accepting her award Oscar style thanking the Russians, Facebook Arron and myself with caption only 75p spent on Brexit etc – make it funny.”

Or this one from May last year, four days after the Observer published the first story that used Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, as an anonymous source: “Can you do a tile of Carole Cadwalladr with a tin foil hat on, looking manic at a computer with a big whiteboard with illuminati triangles with a big chalkboard filled with formulae etc. No copy. She’s looking into the campaign trying to find a big global conspiracy and we want to take the piss out of her…”

Carole’s 29-year-old Peugeot



Carole’s 29-year-old Peugeot has been an unlikely gateway to new discoveries about data.

He did. The image – flatearth.jpg – is attached in the next email and later @LeaveEUOfficial put it out on Twitter. “Madwoman @carolecadwalla is desperate to unearth some global conspiracy to undermine the #EURef. There isn’t one. Leave won, get over it!”

So far, so predictable. The “piss taking” was – until November’s video – the main mode of communication from Leave.EU to me. But the email chain and others in the folder pose more questions. Questions about the relationship between Banks and Leave.EU. About the relationship of Banks with Eldon insurance. And their relationship to each other. Questions that urgently need answers.

Because the request to Leave.EU was assigned to an employee whose email states “(Eldon Insurance Services)” and who has worked for Eldon Insurance Services Ltd since October 2016. He was assigned the “task” by someone with a Leave.EU email address and the email links through to a password-protected website called www.eldoninsuranceservices.eu.teamwork.com.

Also cc-ed is another employee who Kaiser’s emails, released via parliament last week, show was involved with the work that Cambridge Analytica did for the campaign. His LinkedIn profile describes him as doing political work on behalf of Eldon Insurance.

Other employees are listed as working for working both companies. Eldon’s operations manager, for example, is also Leave.EU’s operations manager. When asked about this crossover of employees, directors and projects, Banks said: “During the campaign a small number of managers were allocated, expensed in the EC [electoral commission] return and worked on Leave.EU.” When asked about current employees, including current employees who were working for both organisations concurrently, he gave no reply.

Leave.EU was, and still is, based within Eldon Insurance’s HQ. Westmonster, the political news site Banks founded and funded, is registered to an Eldon Insurance address. Adverts for his firm GoSkippy are routinely sent to people on Leave.EU’s mailing list. Last year, Banks defended the practice, saying: “Why shouldn’t I? It’s my data.” When asked again last week, he said: “Leave.EU after the referendum campaign carried the occasional ad for insurance, so what?” In an email a day later, he said: “Eldon has never given … any data to Leave.EU.”

Last week, the Observer revealed that in the same week that the ICO had raided Cambridge Analytica’s office and seized evidence, it had issued “information notices” to both Leave.EU and Banks, a regulatory action that asks for information to be provided, for which non-compliance is a criminal offence. The questions are being asked, it seems. However, Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, told a conference last week that it urgently needed stronger powers to conduct its investigations. “We need the regime to reflect that data crimes are real crimes,” she said.

The questions are out there. Whether the ICO has the power to get the answers – or whether we’re going to continue to rely on clues obtained by a parliamentary committee and a 29-year-old Peugeot – remains to be seen.



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Facebook and Cambridge Analytica face class action lawsuit | News

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British and US lawyers have launched a joint class action against Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and two other companies for allegedly misusing the personal data of more than 71 million people.

The lawsuit claims the firms obtained users’ private information from the social media network to develop “political propaganda campaigns” in the UK and the US.

Facebook, it is said, may initially have been misled, but failed to act responsibly to protect the data of 1 million British users and 70.6 million people in America. The data, it is suggested, was first used in the British EU referendum and then in the US during the 2016 presidential election.

As well as Cambridge Analytica, the two firms named in the legal writ are SCL Group Limited and Global Science Research Limited (GSR).

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign and White House adviser, led Cambridge Analytica in 2014, when the data was collected and extracted, the legal papers state.

The Cambridge University neuroscientist Aleksandr Kogan, a founding director of GSR, is also named.

Cambridge Analytica was set up in 2013 as an offshoot of SCL Group, which offered similar services to businesses and political parties.

All the companies and Kogan have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Cambridge Analytica on Monday again rebutted many claims made about the company’s business. It argued, among other things, that it only ever received data on 30 million US citizens; that it did not use the data at all in the Trump campaign or the Brexit referendum; and that the Facebook data it received was legally obtained through a Facebook tool. “It has become open season for critics to say whatever they like about us based on speculation and hearsay,” the acting chief executive, Alexander Tayler, said.

Jason McCue, of the London-based McCue and Partners, which specialises in data privacy and human rights law, is leading the UK arm of the claim.

He said: “The defendants effectively abused the human right to privacy of ordinary Facebook users and, if that were not enough, then the fruits of that abuse are alleged to have undermined the democratic process. This case will go some way to ensure that neither of these things can happen in the future.”

The extracted data included names, phone numbers, mail and email addresses, political and religious affiliations, and other interests. It was used, it is said, “to accomplish Cambridge Analytica’s driving principle: to build psychological profiles of voters to affect election results in the UK and the US”.

While Kogan’s GSR was granted permission by Facebook to collect data for academic research, the lawsuit maintains, it ended up being used for political and commercial purposes.

Kogan created a personality quiz that required individuals to use their Facebook login credentials to take part. Approximately 270,000 Facebook users installed the application and gave their personal information to Kogan and Cambridge Analytica. The design of the application, however, allowed Kogan and Cambridge Analytica to harvest the personal information of more than 72 million Facebook users who were friends of the original 270,000 users.

In the US, Robert Ruyak, the co-lead counsel in the lawsuit, said: “Facebook utterly failed in its duty and promise to secure the personal information of millions of its users, and, when aware that this … information was aimed against its owners, it failed to take appropriate action.”

Richard Fields, of the Washington law firm Fields PLLC, said: “Facebook has made billions of dollars selling advertisements targeted to its customers, and in this instance made millions selling advertisements to political campaigns that developed those very ads on the back of their customers’ own … personal information. That’s unacceptable, and they must be held accountable.”

In December 2016, while researching the US presidential election, Carole Cadwalladr came across data analytics company Cambridge Analytica, whose secretive manner and chequered track record belied its bland, academic-sounding name.

Her initial investigations uncovered the role of US billionaire Robert Mercer in the US election campaign: his strategic “war” on mainstream media and his political campaign funding, some apparently linked to Brexit.

She found the first indications that Cambridge Analytica might have used data processing methods that breached the Data Protection Act. That article prompted Britain’s Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office to launch investigations whose remits include Cambridge Analytica’s use of data and its possible links to the EU referendum. These investigations are continuing, as is a wider ICO inquiry into the use of data in politics.

While chasing the details and ramifications of complex manipulation of both data and funding law, Cadwalladr came under increasing attacks, both online and professionally, from key players.

The Leave.EU campaign tweeted a doctored video that showed her being violently assaulted, and the Russian embassy wrote to the Observer to complain that her reporting was a “textbook example of bad journalism”.

But the growing profile of her reports also gave whistleblowers confidence that they could trust her to not only understand their stories, but retell them clearly for a wide audience.

Her network of sources and contacts grew to include not only former employees who regretted their work but academics, lawyers and others concerned about the impact on democracy of tactics employed by Cambridge Analytica and associates.

Cambridge Analytica is now the subject of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probing of the company’s role in Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. Investigations in the UK remain live.

News of the lawsuit came on the day Facebook started to notify individual victims of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting operation, allowing the specific group of affected users to come forward for the first time.

In early April, Facebook released aggregate figures of those it believed to be affected. Worldwide, it estimated that 87 million people had had their information harvested by the app, This is Your Digital Life, created by Cambridge Analytica and Kogan.

The social network has since broken that figure down by country: the vast majority of those whose information was “improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica” were in the US (more than 70 million people), but substantial numbers of those affected were in the UK (1.1 million), Canada (600,000), India (550,000) and Australia (310,000).

Most of those users will have had their information – including their public profile, page likes, birthday and home town – uploaded through no direct action of their own. Instead, one of their friends would have logged in to Kogan’s app and gave it permission to extract their friends’ data, probably unknowingly.

Just 300,000 people worldwide – including 56 people in Australia and 10 in New Zealand, as well as an unknown number of users in the UK – were sufficient to gather the full data set.

Facebook has made a commitment to proactively inform those whose data was taken by Cambridge Analytica, and on Tuesday the company made available a tool to allow users to check for themselves.

As the scandal has grown, the systematic weakness of Facebook’s access controls in the first half of this decade has prompted concerns that Cambridge Analytica may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Facebook has confessed to another unrelated data leak, with more than a billion profiles being “scraped” due to a feature that allowed users to look at pages by entering a phone number or email address.

The company has not yet made a commitment to informing users of whether they were caught up in any of these other data leaks.



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Ready players? Not if the game is young men doing real jobs | Business

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In Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, much of the population of a desolate future America have abandoned the world of work for the virtual reality of gaming in a software program called the Oasis. A report from the International Monetary Fund on Monday suggests it’s perhaps not such a fanciful future after all.

The rather more sober, official title of the IMF report is Labor Force Participation in Advanced Economies: Drivers and Prospects. What it reveals is a sharp and still barely understood divergence between Europe and the US, especially since the 2008 financial crisis.

The number of women in the workforce in Europe has been rising strongly, said the IMF. But in a “striking difference” the trend has gone into reverse in the US. Meanwhile, jobs for “prime-age men” have stagnated or dropped back a bit in Europe, but in the US the decline has been far more serious.

“The reason that US prime-age men and youth became so much more disconnected from the labor market than their European counterparts remains puzzling,” said the IMF.

But it does offer some hypotheses although not endorsing any; opioid use, rising disability and higher incarceration rates in the US all get a mention. But it also points to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research which concluded that young males are dropping out of the workforce to play video games instead.

Social gaming – where players connect with others across the internet – took off with World of Warcraft in 2004, and since then the researchers say they have found a direct correlation with reduced labour force participation. How do these young men support themselves if they’re not working? They don’t – many more just live with their parents.

A generation sinking into gaming is not the only troubling feature of this IMF report. It charts the overall decline in US labour participation, particularly pronounced in the mid-west states, but stretching to the coasts as well, with New York the only major metropolitan area to buck the trend.

None of this can be read without reference to Donald Trump’s election victory and the escalating tariff and trade wars. The IMF acknowledges that workers in manufacturing earn around 30% more than the service sector jobs many are dumped into when production goes offshore. But Trump’s prescription for making America great again – by reshoring manufacturing jobs from Asia – is fraught with danger. Very few advanced economies have increased manufacturing output as a share of total GDP since 1960 (Ireland by the most), yet every single one has still seen jobs in manufacturing decline. And the only major economy to lose more manufacturing jobs than either Britain or the US since 1960? Step forward Hong Kong.

House prices: the out-of-touch commentators

The surprise spike in the Halifax house price index – up 1.5% in March, the biggest rise for six months – wrong-footed many economists who are predicting a flat 2018. But it brought joy to estate agents everywhere. “These numbers represent an impressive sprint finish for the first quarter,” said the James Pendleton agency. “This is an enormous rebound … Any Brexit fears seem to have abated for the time being,” said House Simple, another agency. Meanwhile at Garrington Property Finders they opined that “After February’s freeze, the March thaw brought some relief to the property market.”

Joy? Relief? For whom? That 1.5% gain in March alone meant that the average house price in the UK reached an all-time high of £227,871, or around nine times average incomes.

The only real joy that has emerged from the UK property market in recent months is how prices have stumbled in London, dropping from completely crazed to somewhere just a tiny fraction below totally idiotic. The hope must be that the London falls will radiate out of the capital across the country. If we are to see yet another UK house market surge, at the very time that the economy is mired in Brexit uncertainty, and when personal debt levels are calamitously high, then there really is no hope for young people. Maybe there’s a rationality to all that time spent playing World of Warcraft instead.

But the reality is that this spike in house prices is unlikely to persist for long. A formal rise in interest rates is coming, with the first increase likely in May. Meanwhile an informal increase is already happening, after the Bank of England withdrew the £106bn Term Funding Scheme punchbowl from the party last month. Data supplier Moneyfacts has revealed today that the interest rate on the average two-year fixed rate mortgage has reached a 19-month high. These are not the conditions in which we will see another surge in property prices.



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Facebook suspends data firm hired by Vote Leave over alleged Cambridge Analytica ties | Technology

Facebook suspends data firm hired by Vote Leave over alleged Cambridge Analytica ties | Technology


Facebook has suspended the Canadian data firm that the official Vote Leave campaign spent 40% of its budget with, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal continues to unfold.

On Friday, Facebook announced that it had suspended AggregateIQ (AIQ) from its platform following reports that the company may be connected to Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL.

In its statement, Facebook said: “In light of recent reports that AggregateIQ may be affiliated with SCL and may, as a result, have improperly received FB user data, we have added them to the list of entities we have suspended from our platform while we investigate.

“Our internal review continues, and we will co-operate fully with any investigations by regulatory authorities.”

The company played a critical role in the European referendum with four different campaigns employing its services and spending a total of £3.5m: Vote Leave, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the DUP. Additionally, it did work for John Bolton, the newly appointed national security adviser to Donald Trump, and the US senators Thom Tillis and Ted Cruz.

The Observer first revealed links between Cambridge Analytica and AIQ last May. Two weeks ago, Christopher Wylie, the ex-Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, told how he had help set up the company when he asked his friends in his home town of Victoria, British Columbia, to come and work with Cambridge Analytica. AIQ have denied that Wylie had any involvement in setting up the company.

At that time, AIQ removed a quote from Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s chief strategist, from the home page of its website. Previously, it had said: “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.”



Whistleblower Christopher Wylie has shed light on the alleged links between AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Ten days ago, Wylie gave evidence about AIQ to MPs on the department of culture, media and sport select committee and also handed over legal documents that showed the connections between it and SCL Elections, including two contracts and an IP licence as well as an email between Jeff Silvester, the co-founder of AIQ, and Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica.

The email, about the campaign for Bolton, referenced Aleksandr Kogan and the Facebook data that he had harvested on Cambridge Analytica’s behalf.

Last week, AIQ told the Observer that it was not a direct part and/or the Canadian branch of Cambridge Analytica and that it had not been involved the exploitation of Facebook data.

The company is already intertwined in an investigation by the Electoral Commission, which in November re-opened an investigation into a donation of £625,000 that Vote Leave had given its youth campaign, BeLeave, saying there was “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed”.

It is perfectly legal for one campaign to donate to another if they are separate, but the donation went straight from Vote Leave to AIQ and a second whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, a 22-year-old volunteer with BeLeave, told the Observer that they had no control over how the money was spent. Vote Leave have repeatedly denied the coordination between the campaigns and said the donation was legitimate pursuant to electoral law. When the Electoral Commission first looked at this in March 2017 it agreed with Vote Leave.

The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who is leading another investigation into the use of data in the referendum, said: “AggregateIQ has not been especially cooperative with our investigation. We are taking further steps in that matter.” AIQ say they have answered all the questions put to them by the Electoral Commission.


The Brexit whistleblower: ‘Not cheating is the core of what it means to be British’ – video

Both Dom Cummings, the chief strategist for Vote Leave, and Darren Grimes of BeLeave, told the paper that he found the firm – which has just 20 staff that operated out of a cramped office above an opticians in the Canadian city of Victoria, 4,760 miles away – “on the internet”.

But cached searches show that AggregateIQ did not show up in Google searches at that time and a new source within Vote Leave has come forward to say that Cummings had full knowledge of the connections between the two firms. AIQ says it has had a website since it was founded in 2013.

Wylie claims that the two entities, certainly during the time of the referendum campaign, were operating closely, though this has been strongly denied by AIQ. “Among internal CA [Cambridge Analytica] staff AIQ was referred to as ‘our Canadian office’. They were treated as a department within the company,” he said. They were both working on Cruz’s presidential campaign at the time, he said, and were in daily contact.

Silvester said that Cambridge Analytica was not in contact with AIQ during the referendum campaign. “AIQ never worked or even communicated in any way with Cambridge Analytica or any other parties related to Cambridge Analytica with respect to the Brexit campaign. Any claim that we shared Vote Leave data with Cambridge Analytica or anyone else in any way is entirely false.”

AIQ have yet to release a statement in relation to the suspension.



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Mark Zuckerberg declines to give evidence personally to MPs about Facebook data scandal – Politics live | Politics

Mark Zuckerberg declines to give evidence personally to MPs about Facebook data scandal – Politics live | Politics






































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No 10 ‘very concerned’ over Facebook data breach by Cambridge Analytica | Technology

No 10 ‘very concerned’ over Facebook data breach by Cambridge Analytica | Technology


Downing Street expressed its concern for the Facebook data breach that affected tens of millions of people involving the analytics company that worked with Donald Trump’s campaign team.

No 10 weighed in on the row as the social network saw almost $20bn (£14bn) wiped off its market cap in the first few minutes of trading on the NASDAQ stock exchange, where Facebook opened down more than 3%.

Theresa May’s spokesman said she backed an investigation by the information commissioner, which was prompted by a whistleblower who told the Observer how Cambridge Analytica harvested millions of Facebook profiles to influence voters through “psychographic” targeting.

The European Parliament president, Antonio Tajani, also said on Monday that the institution would “investigate fully”. Tajani urged the social media giant to take more responsibility, saying on Twitter that “allegations of misuse of Facebook user data is an unacceptable violation of our citizens’ privacy rights.”

In the US, a state attorney general has called for investigations, greater accountability and regulation, while in the UK the head of the parliamentary committee investigating fake news accused Cambridge Analytica and Facebook of misleading MPs, with the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport warning of an end to the “wild west” of technology firms.

“The allegations are clearly very concerning, it’s essential people can have confidence that their personal data can be protected and used in an appropriate way,” May’s spokesman said.

“So it is absolutely right the information commissioner is investigating this matter and we expect Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and all the organisations involved to cooperate fully.”

Damian Collins MP, The chair of the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee, said he would call the heads of both companies, Mark Zuckerberg and Alexander Nix, to give further testimony.

“We need to hear from people who can speak about Facebook from a position of authority that requires them to know the truth,” Collins told the Guardian. “Someone has to take responsibility for this. It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to stop hiding behind his Facebook page.”

Collins, a Conservative MP, has also suggested the powers of the information commissioner should be beefed up to give them the legal power to force companies to provide information.

Downing Street said it would consider any formal requests to give new powers to the commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, but added her powers had only recently been reviewed.

“I haven’t seen any formal requests, the information commissioner does have significant powers which have been enhanced in recent times, but if any formal requests were made to us I’m sure we’d consider it,” the spokesman said.

Last week, DCMS secretary Matt Hancock told Collins’ committee that following Brexit he would like to review legislation governing social media. Today, the minister expanded on his words, telling the Telegraph that “The wild west for tech companies is over.”

Last month, both Facebook representatives and Nix told the parliamentary inquiry into fake news that the company did not have or use private Facebook data, or any data from Global Science Research (GSR). But in its statement on Friday night, explaining why it had suspended Cambridge Analytica and Wylie, Facebook said it had known in 2015 that profiles were passed to Nix’s company.

Name

Alexander James Ashburner Nix

Career

Nix worked as a financial analyst in Mexico and the UK before joining SCL, a strategic communications firm in 2003. From 2007 he took over the company’s elections division, and claims to have worked on more than 40 campaignsglobally. Many of SCL’s projects are secret so that may be a low estimate. He set up Cambridge Analytica to work in America, with investment from US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. He has been both hailed as a visionary — featuring on Wired’s list of “25 Geniuses who are creating the future of business” — and derided as a snake oil salesman.

Controversies

Cambridge Analytica has come under scrutiny for its role in elections on both sides of the Atlantic, working on Brexit and Donald Trump’s election team. It is a key subject in two inquiries in the UK – by the Electoral Commission, into the firm’s possible role in the EU referendum and the Information Commissioner’s Office, into data analytics for political purposes – and one in the US, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump-Russia collusion. The Observer revealed this week that the company had harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. Emma Graham-Harrison


Photograph: The Washington Post

“In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our ‘platform policies’ by passing data from an app that was using Facebook login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica,” the statement said.

Trump’s 2016 election campaign paid Cambridge Analytica more than $6.2m (£4.4m), according to federal election commission records but denies using any Facebook data in the campaign.

In a now-deleted series of tweets, Facebook’s chief security officer argued that the friend list data that Cambridge Analytica acquired was obtained through an API, a feature that allows programs to interface with Facebook, that was well documented “in our terms of service, platform documentation, the privacy settings, and the screen used to login to apps.”

On Saturday evening, however, he deleted his tweets, saying “I should have done a better job weighing in.

“There are a lot of big problems that the big tech companies need to be better at fixing,” he added. “We have collectively been too optimistic about what we build and our impact on the world. Believe it or not, a lot of the people at these companies, from the interns to the CEOs, agree.”





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Facebook to expand inquiry into Russian influence of Brexit | Technology

Facebook to expand inquiry into Russian influence of Brexit | Technology


Tech giant looks into spreading of disinformation after MPs criticised scope of first investigation






Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Facebook has bowed to pressure from MPs and said it will deepen its investigation into whether Russian agents used the platform to spread fake news in the hope of influencing the Brexit vote.

The social media giant told the digital, culture, media and sport committee that it would examine whether there were further clusters of accounts spreading disinformation, having previously been criticised for only conducting a limited investigation.

Simon Milner, a policy director at Facebook, said the company would carry out the work promptly to see if “there was coordinated activity similar to that which was found in the US,” where the presidential election was targeted.

Facebook had previously conducted an investigation at the behest of the UK Electoral Commission on a cluster of accounts from Russia’s “troll farm” Internet Research Agency, which were known to have spread fake news in the US.

The company concluded last month that the impact of these in Britain was limited – because the accounts spent only $0.97 (70p) for a handful of adverts before the referendum, which appeared in 200 News Feeds.

But the select committee was concerned that accounts set up to target the US presidential election may have also been aimed at the UK. It demanded that Facebook widen the scope of the investigation.

Campaigners on either side of the EU debate will have differing opinions on whether any adverse finding on spending calls the result of the referendum into question.

However, Jo Maugham, the barrister behind the Good Law Project, said any illegal spending would undermine the result, adding to concerns about Russian meddling and Brexiters failing to deliver promises they made during the campaign.

The commission can impose a fine of up to £20,000 for individual rule breaches. Any evidence of more serious offences uncovered in the course of the investigation can be referred to the police if warranted.

Damian Collins, the committee chair, said: “It is right that companies like Facebook should initiate their own research into issues like this,” and added that he expected that the committee would want to question the company once the inquiry concludes.

Ahead of the election of Donald Trump, the Russian Internet Research Agency spent about $100,000 on 3,000 adverts. Content from the platform was seen by up to 150m people on Facebook posts and via Instagram.

The committee is inquiring into fake news, and will travel to the US next month to meet technology executives and others to try to see what impact so called bot accounts have had.

A Guardian investigation showed that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts run by the Russian agency have tried to influence British politics recently. One fake poster attempted to stir anti-Muslim sentiment by highlighting a picture of woman it claimed was walking by a severely injured man during the Westminster terror attack.

The tweet was picked up by a number of news organisations, including Mail Online and the Sun.

But it has proved harder to obtain equivalent information about Facebook without the cooperation of the company.



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Twitter’s response to Brexit interference inquiry inadequate, MP says | Technology

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Twitter has been attacked for its “completely inadequate” response to a parliamentary committee seeking answers about Russian misinformation operations during the EU referendum.

In its submission, sent on Wednesday, the company listed just six Russian tweets that were promoted as paid advertisements on its platform during the referendum period.

All six tweets were sent by the English-language broadcaster Russia Today, which spent just over $1,000 (£750) promoting them to British users to spread awareness of its news coverage.

But Damian Collins MP, chair of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport committee, said Twitter’s response failed to address any of the substantive issues raised. Instead, the company has simply replied to a far narrower request from the Electoral Commission, which was exclusively concerned with spending.

“The information you have now shared with us is completely inadequate,” Collins said. “In the letter I sent to you on 3 November I requested ‘that Twitter provides to the committee a list of accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and any other Russian linked accounts that it has removed and examples of any posts from these accounts that are linked to the United Kingdom.’

“Whilst the inquiry currently being conducted by the Electoral Commission is extremely important, it is completely separate and different in nature to the inquiry that my committee is undertaking,” Collins added.

“It seems odd that so far we have received more information about activities that have taken place on your platform from journalists and academics than from you,” the letter concluded. “If Twitter is serious about cooperating with the work of this committee and tackling the spread of disinformation then you should provide me with a full response to the clear questions that I set out … no later than Monday 15 January.”

Collins’ condemnation of Twitter’s response comes a day after Facebook faced a similar dressing-down. It too had submitted to the committee a copy of its response to the Electoral Commission, focusing exclusively on paid advertising on its platform, of which it found just $0.97 (£0.72) worth aimed at British users.

“Facebook conducted its own research to identify tens of thousands of fake pages and accounts that were active during the French presidential election,” Collins said on Wednesday. “They should do the same looking back at the EU referendum and not just rely on external sources referring evidence of suspicious activity back to them.”

The two social networks’ response to the UK parliament stands in stark contrast to the wealth of information they provided to the US Congress. Following a congressional hearing into Russian operations targeting the 2016 presidential election, Twitter provided Congress with a list of 2,752 accounts that it believed were run from the IRA, a St Petersburg-based “troll army”.

Facebook identified 470 accounts and pages run by the group, which had between them spent more than $100,000 on adverts, and provided examples of many of the adverts to Congress, as well as the metadata detailing how much they cost and how many views each received. In total, more than 126 million Americans were reached.

The Twitter-based disinformation campaign bore fruit for the IRA. Tweets sent by its employees were quoted more than 80 times across the British media, a Guardian investigation revealed, in several cases directly altering the tone and content of subsequent coverage of major news events, such as the Westminster terror attack of March 2016.



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Facebook criticised for response to questions on Russia and Brexit | Technology

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Facebook has been slammed for failing to do any extra work in its investigation into Russian influence on the EU referendum, after the company’s inquiry found just 97¢ of ad spending originating from the notorious Russian “troll army”.

Damian Collins MP, the chair of the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee, said the company’s initial response to the Electoral Commission “does not answer the questions that I put to Mark Zuckerberg.

“Facebook conducted its own research to identify tens of thousands of fake pages and accounts that were active during the French presidential election,” Collins said. “They should do the same looking back at the EU referendum and not just rely on external sources referring evidence of suspicious activity back to them.”

The social network released the information to the Electoral Commission on Wednesday, in response to the organisation’s investigation into campaign activity funded from outside the UK. Just 200 people in Britain saw the adverts, Facebook said, which cost Russia’s notorious “troll factory”, the Internet Research Agency, just 97¢ to deliver.

“We have examined whether any of the identified Internet Research Agency (IRA) pages or account profiles funded advertisements to audiences in the United Kingdom during the regulated period for the EU referendum,” Facebook said in a letter to the Electoral Commission, shared with the Guardian.

“We have determined that these accounts associated with the IRA spent a small amount of money ($0.97) on advertisements that delivered to UK audiences during that time. This amount resulted in three advertisements (each of which were also targeted to US audiences and concerned immigration, not the EU referendum) delivering approximately 200 impressions to UK viewers over four days in May 2016.”

Google and Twitter were also asked to submit evidence of paid activity to the Electoral Commission. Google has confirmed that it found none, and a spokesperson told the Guardian: “We took a thorough look at our systems and found no evidence of this activity on our platform.” Twitter has not made public the results of its investigation.

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “Facebook, Google and Twitter have responded to us. We welcome their cooperation. There is further work to be done with these companies in response to our request for details of campaign activity on their platforms funded from outside the UK. Following those discussions we will say more about our conclusions.”

The commission’s investigation is limited to potentially unlawful campaign spending, while the inquiry led by Collins is taking a broader look at the issue.

He said Facebook’s initial response was far too narrow in scope, and only looked at the suspicious activity uncovered in an earlier investigation into the US, rather than starting afresh and looking for accounts created to skew debate in Britain.

“I asked Facebook to provide the committee with details relating to any adverts and pages paid for, or set up by, Russian-linked accounts,” Collins said. “In their response to the Electoral Commission, Facebook responded only with regards to funded advertisements to audiences in the UK from the around 470 accounts and pages run by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency, which had been active during the US presidential election.

“It would appear that no work has been done by Facebook to look for Russian activity around the EU referendum, other than from funded advertisements from those accounts that had already been identified as part of the US Senate’s investigation. No work has been done by Facebook to look for other fake accounts and pages that could be linked to Russian-backed agencies and which were active during the EU referendum, as I requested.

“Are we to believe that Russian-backed targeting of voters through social media with fake news was limited only to Twitter during the referendum, when both Twitter and Facebook had been used in the USA during the presidential election?”

In the US, when Twitter looked for accounts seemingly run by the IRA that were heavily involved in the discussion around the US general election, it found more than 2,700. Many of those accounts had been regularly cited in the media as apparently real American voters, a Guardian analysis showed, with Russian-authored tweets being quoted more than 80 times in the British media alone.



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