Transatlantic relations would be harmed by the details of Johnson’s summit with the now-disgraced data firm, an independent regulator has concluded
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The release of the minutes and official correspondence related to Boris Johnson’s meeting with the now-disgraced data firm Cambridge Analytica in December 2016 would “directly undermine the trust and confidence between the UK and US”, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has said.
On 8 December 2016, while serving as Foreign Secretary, Johnson held a meeting with Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. According to Government records, the meeting was held “to discuss [the] US political situation”.
A day earlier, Sir Alan Duncan – who was at the time serving as Minister of State for Europe and the Americas – also met with Nix “to discuss the US election result and build senior contacts with the transition team”.
The 2016 US Presidential election had concluded a month earlier, seeing the shock election of Republican populist Donald Trump – whose campaign had been supported by Cambridge Analytica. The firm targeted voters online based on techniques that it had learned from 50 million Facebook profiles, using the data harvested from these individuals without their consent. Nix and other executives were later captured by undercover reporters boasting about deploying underhand techniques, including the use of sex workers, to influence elections worldwide.
Byline Times reported in May last year that the Foreign Office had rejected a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from this newspaper, asking for all the minutes and correspondence related to these two meetings. We filed an internal review, which was also rejected, and subsequently lodged a complaint with the ICO, which independently adjudicates on FOI matters and data protection.
The ICO upheld the Foreign Office’s decision – on the basis that relations between the US and the UK would be compromised if the minutes and the correspondence of the Cambridge Analytica meetings were released.
The ICO’s decision notice stated that, after reviewing the Government’s evidence, it accepted that “disclosure of the withheld information” would “harm” UK relations with the US.
“The Commissioner has reached this conclusion because he accepts that disclosure of the withheld information would directly undermine the trust and confidence between the UK and US,” the ICO said. “Disclosure of the particular information would be likely to require a diplomatic response that would otherwise not have been necessary.”
It added that the diplomatic ramifications would be so severe that “it would also be more difficult for the UK to protect and promote its interests with the US on a range of bilateral issues.”
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Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist who exposed much of the wrongdoing committed by Cambridge Analytica, told Byline Times that this decision from the ICO means that there are now “more questions that remain unanswered about Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with the UK Government.”
She added that: “Cambridge Analytica was a commercial company. It was doing commercial work, most recently for a political candidate in the US. There is simply no good reason why its dealings with the UK Government should be a closely guarded state secret.
“The Foreign Office is relying on an exemption on the grounds that releasing the information could ‘prejudice relations’ with another state or jeopardise the ‘promotion or protection’ of UK’s interests abroad. But how?… I think this begs many more questions than it answers.”
When Johnson was asked in the House of Commons in July 2019 why he met fellow Old Etonian Alexander Nix, he responded: “Mr Speaker, I have no idea.”
Johnson did not respond to our request for comment.
“It is significant that Johnson met with Nix less than a month after Trump was elected,” Ian Lucas, a former Labour member of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, told Byline Times.
“Remember that Nix specifically worked on digital campaigning and will likely have been ambitious, at this time, to promote his role in Trump’s election and secure more work from right-wing politicians on the back of it. Johnson was interested enough in Nix’s role to meet him.”
Lucas, who is the author of Digital Gangsters, added that the Conservatives and Johnson have benefitted since this time from the techniques pioneered by Cambridge Analytica – exploiting the UK’s lack of digital campaigning laws. Johnson in particular “has resisted regulation of it at every stage and this is further evidence that we must wake up to the threat it poses to our democracy,” Lucas said.
Cambridge Analytica’s managing director, Mark Turnbull, also briefed Foreign Office officials in February 2017 on the use of data in the 2016 Presidential Election, according to The Times.
It is additionally significant that information exists involving Johnson that could compromise UK-US relations, given his current (informal) diplomatic efforts in Ukraine – and the fact that rumours continue to circle about the prospect of his return to front-line politics.
“Boris Johnson’s carelessness with words put people in danger and his reckless behaviour put national security at risk,” Fleur Anderson, Labour’s Shadow Paymaster General, told Byline Times. “There are now serious questions not only about why he met Cambridge Analytica as Foreign Secretary but why revealing what he discussed could apparently be so explosive that it could undermine the UK’s diplomatic relations with the US. What on earth was Boris Johnson up to and why did the Conservative Party enable him?”
‘It’s All About Emotion’
Cambridge Analytica came to international notoriety in 2018 after it was revealed by the Observer that data from 50 million Facebook users had been harvested and used without their authorisation.
Cambridge Analytica used this vast data bank to build a software programme that could predict and influence choices at the ballot box through targeted online adverts.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Observer. “And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
The big data firm claimed to possess up to 5,000 data points on more than 230 million Americans, and said that it had worked on more than 200 elections across the globe.
One of these elections was the 2016 US Presidential Election – for which it was paid some $6 million to help the campaign of Ted Cruz, who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump. The firm then switched to the Trump campaign, with Cambridge Analytica vice president Steve Bannon appointed as Trump’s campaign manager.
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Bannon also claimed that he advised Boris Johnson on his first speech after resigning as Foreign Secretary in July 2018, during which Johnson slammed then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy.
Filmed on the day of the speech, Bannon said that: “Today we are going to see if Boris Johnson tries to overthrow the British Government. He’s going to give a speech in the Commons… I’ve been talking to him all weekend about this speech. We went back and forth over text.”
Bannon further claimed that he spent time with Johnson after the 2016 US Presidential Election when he was working as Donald Trump’s chief strategist – a role he left in August 2017. “Right after we won, Boris flew over. Because their victory was as unexpected as ours. I got to know him quite well in the transition period,” he said.
A spokesman for Johnson said at the time: “Any suggestion that Boris is colluding with or taking advice from Mr Bannon… is totally preposterous to the point of conspiracy.”
It has also been claimed that Cambridge Analytica worked on the pro-Brexit campaign, with Leave.EU’s former communications director Andy Wigmore saying that Cambridge Analytica was “more than happy to help… we shared a lot of information”.
The official Vote Leave campaign, fronted by Johnson, also spent most its online campaigning budget (including a late, unlawful overspend) through the Canadian agency AggregateIQ (AIQ), a spin-off business linked to SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, with AIQ managing Cambridge Analytica’s technology platform – Ripon – and its databases.
An undercover investigation by Channel 4 in March 2018 then exposed Alexander Nix and his fellow Cambridge Analytica executives boasting about using questionable techniques to influence elections.
One suggestion was to create a sex scandal to discredit opponents. “Send some girls around to the candidate’s house,” Nix said, talking hypothetically to the Channel 4 reporter, who was posing as a potential client. “We could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us, you know what I’m saying… I find that works very well.”
Executives at the firm were also filmed talking about using stings, ex-spies and fake IDs – though the company later claimed that it had not in fact used these tactics in real political campaigns.
The company’s managing director, Mark Turnbull, was also captured talking about the company’s approach to digital campaigns – saying that “it’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion”.
Turnbull boasted of disseminating sophisticated, negative attack adverts through proxy organisations in order to assist their favoured candidates. Nix added that: “it sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they are believed.”
Cambridge Analytica and its parent company closed operations in May 2018, while Facebook was fined $5 billion by Federal Trade Commission in America over Cambridge Analytica’s use of unauthorised data, and £500,000 by the ICO (the maximum fine available).
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