Leave.EU used 'creepy' Facebook profiling technology to win Brexit campaign — and now the data watchdog is investigating

Jake Kanter
Nigel Farage

PA


  • Leave.EU admits using "creepy" Facebook tech to scoop up data and target voters with anti-EU messages.
  • The data firm that helped Donald Trump take office, Cambridge Analytica, distances itself from the Leave.EU project.
  • Questions over whether Leave.EU broke rules on political donations and if Cambridge Analytica breached data protection laws.

LONDON — The communications director for Leave.EU, the Nigel Farage-backed Brexit campaign group, has admitted using "creepy" Facebook profiling technology to persuade Brits to vote to leave Europe. 

Leave.EU communications director Andy Wigmore told The Observer at the weekend that the group — which is bankrolled by UKIP's biggest donor Aaron Banks — harvested personal data last year and targeted voters on Facebook with anti-EU messaging.

He claimed Leave.EU worked with Cambridge Analytica (CA), the data firm credited with helping Donald Trump win the US election, on an informal basis on the project. CA has denied it worked for the campaign, however.

Now Leave.EU is the subject of a complaint over whether it broke the rules on political donations, and Cambridge Analytica is being investigated by the government's data protection agency over whether it breached privacy laws, sources tell Business Insider.

Facebook as a propaganda weapon

Wigmore told The Observer that Facebook was a powerful weapon in Leave.EU's armoury. "Using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert," he said.

"And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring."

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo as he poses with a Samsung S4 smartphone in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

Thomson ReutersHe admitted that the technology's accuracy is unsettling. Wigmore said: "It’s really creepy! It’s why I’m not on Facebook! I tried it on myself to see what information it had on me and I was like, 'Oh my God!' What’s scary is that my kids had put things on Instagram and it picked that up. It knew where my kids went to school.”

He told The Observer that CA was "happy to help" with its work on Brexit on a pro bono basis. This, he said, is because Farage is a "good friend" of Robert Mercer, the hedge fund billionaire who is reported to have invested in CA.

The firm has developed a proprietary technique known as "psychographics" to profile individuals and target them with messages, but in a statement to Business Insider, it said it played no part in Leave.EU's Brexit campaign. "Cambridge Analytica did not carry out any kind of paid or unpaid work for Leave.EU," a spokesman told us.

Business Insider contacted Leave.EU four times to ask why CA was disputing Wigmore's version of events and request more information about the data firm's actual involvement in the social media profiling. Leave.EU did not respond to our emails or phone calls.

Complaint to Electoral Commission and data protection probe

A complaint has been filed with the Electoral Commission over CA's alleged work for Leave.EU, according to a source who has seen the complaint. Under election rules, political parties must declare donations of £7,500 or more, including services-in-kind.

"My guess is that we are now beginning to see a rather fuller picture of how the Leave vote and the Trump vote really came about," the source told Business Insider. The source was a supporter of Britain remaining in the European Union but agreed only to talk anonymously in order to avoid any attendant negative publicity. 

Brexit protest

Charlotte Ball PA Wire/PA ImagesAn Electoral Commission spokeswoman said the watchdog does not comment on complaints, but said that it is not currently investigating the relationship between Leave.EU and CA.

Separately, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which is responsible for enforcing data protection laws in the UK, has launched an investigation into CA.

An ICO spokesman told Business Insider:

"Any business collecting and using personal data in the UK must do so fairly and lawfully. Fairness generally requires organisations to be clear and open with individuals about how their information will be used. Stricter rules apply to using information about an individual’s political beliefs."

"We will be contacting Cambridge Analytica and asking questions to find out how the company is operating in the UK and whether the law is being followed."

Cambridge Analytica told The Observer that it is in touch with the ICO and is completely compliant with UK and EU data laws.

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