A New York professor filed a legal claim against a data company that worked for President Donald Trump’s campaign in a British court Friday in a case that could shed light on how millions of American voters were targeted online in the run-up to the 2016 election.
The claim against Cambridge Analytica came the same day that Facebook suspended the company from its platform as the social media site investigates the company’s use of data on Americans.
Last year, David Carroll, a professor at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, used a British data protection law to ask Cambridge Analytica’s branch in the United Kingdom to provide the data it had gathered on him.
Cambridge’s file on Carroll included predictions on the importance of various issues to him. On a scale of one to 10, they ranked Carroll’s views on issues including gun rights, education, health care, and “traditional social and moral values.”
However, Carroll alleges that the data firm did not fully disclose how it arrived at their predictions.
“If you just go by the topics, they are ranked in a way that demographics alone can’t explain,” Carroll told CNN. “Just by using my age and gender and zip code, they can’t get such an accurate list. There has to be more.”
Cambridge Analytica did not respond to a request for comment about Carroll’s case. The firm was quoted in Mother Jones in December saying Carroll’s claims “are unfounded, and unfortunately, he is wasting other people’s money with this spurious legal action. Cambridge Analytica abides by all relevant data protection laws and, just as importantly, the company’s core values of integrity, respect and honesty. Data privacy is a fundamental right and one that Cambridge Analytica takes very seriously.”
On Friday, Carroll’s lawyers said they submitted a request to a British court to order Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, to hand over all the data they have on the professor and the source of that data.
In his written statement to court, Caroll said, “In particular, I am concerned that I may have been targeted with messages that criticized Secretary Hillary Clinton with falsified or exaggerated information that negatively affected my sentiment about her candidacy and consequently discouraged me from engaging with the Clinton campaign as a formal or informal volunteer.”
Carroll’s lawyer, Ravi Naik, said in a statement Friday, “Our client has every confidence that the court will order disclosure so that he and the American electorate can begin to understand how their data was used in the 2016 election. The recent wider revelations about Cambridge Analytica/SCL show how crucial it is for our client to have a full understanding of what these companies were doing.”
Under British law, individuals can submit what are known as “subject access” requests to organizations that hold information about them. In most cases the organizations need to respond within 40 days with a copy of the data, the source of the data, and if the organization will be giving the data to others.
“It was pretty experimental at the beginning,” Carroll said, ” I was studying the practice of ad targeting from the primaries and through the campaign because it was interesting to me from an academic perspective.”
Carroll said when he realized Cambridge Analytica had a British branch, he decided to file a subject access request in January 2017, not knowing if the company would be obliged to respond given that he isn’t a British citizen.
A few weeks later, however, the company responded providing Carroll with a spreadsheet of information it had about him.
Carroll, a registered Democrat, said that the company had accurately predicted his views on some issues and less so on others. Cambridge scored Carroll a nine out of 10 on what it called a “traditional social and moral values importance rank.” Caroll said he wants to know what that ranking means and what it is based on.
Appearing before a British parliamentary committee earlier this month, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix was asked if his company would provide American citizens, like David Carroll, all the data it holds on them and tell them where the data came from.
Nix said that there was no legislation in the US that provided for individuals to make such a request.
However, a week later at the same committee, the United Kingdom’s data commissioner said Americans could request information from companies that processed their data in the UK.
On Friday, Facebook announced it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and parent Strategic Communication Laboratories from Facebook. The move came ahead of reports published by The New York Times and British newspaper The Observer that called into question how the companies had handled Facebook data.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Cambridge Analytica denied that the organization is in violation of Facebook’s terms and said it is in communication with the social media site following the news it had been suspended from the platform.
The company added that no data that was obtained through a company called Global Science Research, which mined Facebook data, was used as part of the services Cambridge Analytica provided to the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.