Stock up on the popcorn — the currently suspended CEO of the firm at the center of a data handling and political ad-targeting storm currently embroiling Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, has been recalled by a UK parliamentary committee that’s running a probe into the impact of fake news because it’s unhappy with the quality of his prior answers.
The committee also says it has fresh questions for Alexander Nix in light of revelations that hit the headlines at the weekend about how a researcher’s app was used to gather personal information on about 270,000 Facebookers and 50 million of their friends, back in 2015 — data that was passed to CA in violation of Facebook’s policies.
Nix gave evidence to the DCMS committee on February 27, when he claimed: “We do not work with Facebook data, and we do not have Facebook data. We do use Facebook as a platform to advertise, as do all brands and most agencies, or all agencies, I should say. We use Facebook as a means to gather data. We roll out surveys on Facebook that the public can engage with if they elect to.”
That line is one of the claims the committee says it’s keen to press him on now. In a letter to Nix, it writes: “[T]here are a number of inconsistencies in your evidence to us of 27 February, notably your denial that your company received data from the Global Science Research company [aka the firm behind the survey app used by CA to harvest data on 50M Facebook users, according to The Observer].”
“We are also interested in asking you again about your claim that you “do not work with Facebook data, and […] do not have Facebook data,” it continues, warning: “Giving false statements to a Select Committee is a very serious matter.”
The self-styled ‘not a political consultancy’ but “technology-driven marketing firm” (and sometime “campaign consultancy and communication services” company) — which Nix also described in his last evidence session as “not a data miner… a data analytics company” — had its Facebook account suspended late last week for violating Facebook’s platform policies.
While Nix was suspended as CEO by CA’s board on Tuesday, following a Channel 4 News report aired a series of secret recordings that appeared to show Nix advocating the use of proxy organisations to feed untraceable messages onto social media to influence voters. The recordings were made by an undercover reporter posing as a potential client.
The UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, has also applied for a warrant to gain access to CA’s offices and servers — accusing the company of failing to hand over information the regulator had requested as part of a wider investigation it’s carrying out into the use of data analytics for political purposes.
We reached out to the company for comment on the DCMS recall. At the time of writing it had not responded.
Below are a few choice segments from Nix’s last evidence session in from of the committee — which we expect he will be asked to revisit should he agree to make a repeat appearance…
Q698 Rebecca Pow:… Could you expand a bit more on what those surveys are, what you are asking people and how you are gathering the data? Do you keep that data on surveys carried out on Facebook or does Facebook keep it?
Alexander Nix: I cannot speak to Facebook, but as far as I am aware the process works a bit like an opinion survey. If I want to find out how many people prefer red cars or yellow cars, I can post that question on Facebook and people can agree. They can opt in to answer a survey and they give their consent and they say, “I prefer a yellow car” and then we can collect that data. That is no different to running a telephone poll or a digital poll or a mail poll or any other form of poll. It is just a platform that allows you to engage with communities.
Q699 Rebecca Pow: Are they a big part of your data-gathering service?
Alexander Nix: When we work for brands, whether it is in the UK or in the US or elsewhere, we often feel the need to probe their customers and find out what they think about particular products or services. We might use Facebook as a means to engage with the general public to gather this data.
Q700 Simon Hart: Let me ask a very quick question on the Facebook survey opt-in option that you were describing. If you are asking somebody what kind of car they prefer and they opt in, does that facilitate access to other data that may be held by Facebook, which is irrelevant to car colour, or is it only the data you collect on car colour that is relevant?Nothing else that is part of the data held by Facebook would be available to you.
Alexander Nix: You are absolutely right—no other data. As far as I am aware, Facebook does not share any of its data. It is what is known as a walled garden, which keep its data—
Q701 Simon Hart: People are not in any way accidently giving you consent to access data other than that that you specifically asked for.
Alexander Nix: That is correct. People are not giving us consent and Facebook does not have a mechanism that allows third parties such as us to access its data on its customers.
Q702 Simon Hart: Even with its customers’ consent.
Alexander Nix: Even with its customers’ consent.
Chair: You said in your letter to me that, “Cambridge Analytica does not gather” data from Facebook.
Alexander Nix: From Facebook?
Alexander Nix: That is correct.
Q718 Chair: The actual quote from the letter is: “On 8 February 2018 Mr Matheson implied that Cambridge Analytica ‘gathers data from users on Facebook.’ Cambridge Analytica does not gather such data.” But from what you said you do, do you not, through the surveys?
Alexander Nix: Yes, I think I can see what has happened here. What we were trying to say in our letter is that we do not gather Facebook data from Facebook users. We can use Facebook as an instrument to go out and run large-scale surveys of the users, but we do not gather Facebook data.
Q719 Chair: By that do you mean that you do not have access to data that is owned by Facebook?
Alexander Nix: Exactly.
Q720 Chair: You acquire data from Facebook users through them engaging with surveys and other things.
Alexander Nix: Exactly right.
Q721 Chair: Is your engagement, either directly or through any associate companies you may have, just through the placing of surveys or are there other tools or games or thingsthat are on Facebook that you use to gather data from Facebook users?
Alexander Nix: No, simply through surveys.
Q729 Chair: In that presentation I think there is a slide on data analytics where you describe that data is sourced from multiple sources and any marketing company will know that there are companies that specialise in data analytics to analyse consumer behaviour. I think on your chart you had logos of different companies. I think Experian was one and Nielsen was one. You had Facebook on there as well. Again, just to confirm on this, is that because you are highlighting the fact that you can gather data from Facebook?
Alexander Nix: Collect data through Facebook—that is exactly right, yes.
Q730 Chair: Does any of your data comes from Global Science Research company?
Alexander Nix: GSR?
Alexander Nix: We had a relationship with GSR. They did some research for us back in 2014. That research proved to be fruitless and so the answer is no.
Q731 Chair: They have not supplied you with data or information?
Alexander Nix: No.
Q732 Chair: Your datasets are not based with information you have received from them?
Alexander Nix: No.
Chair: At all?
Alexander Nix: At all.