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The growing and completely unpredictable coverage following the exposure of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm, for data harvesting is fast turning into a scandal that will seriously damage the reputation of the government or eventually could even bring it down.
From past experience of Westminster and Whitehall scandals once the genie is out of the bottle there is precious little those in power can do to put the stopper back. And from this weekend due to a crass and vile statement from Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s political secretary, about the private life of the latest whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, it has drawn Downing Street into the fray.
For the ordinary voter the row over data analytics and how it may have been misused may sound a trifle arcane – since it goes back to two past events – the election of Donald Trump and the controversial Brexit vote. Those in power will be tempted to say – nothing to see here, all done and dusted, let’s move on.
The problem is that they can’t. The huge scale of data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica via Facebook of 50 million US citizens plus the potential Russian involvement is now the subject of a huge investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and that will not go away. Already Facebook has taken a financial hit for not protecting our data.
And in England, the Electoral Commission is now investigating the Brexit donations and the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave’s links to other companies, including the Canadian firm,AggregateIQ (AIQ). The Information Commissioner’s Office is now investigating Cambridge Analytica for potential data breaches for political purposes. Neither investigation is likely to stop.
I won’t need to go over the details of the story which now involves two whistleblowers and has led to the suspension of the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix.
You can find it in full in The Observer by the dogged and determined Carole Cadwalladr here. Or you can see the excellent Channel Four documentary here.
What I will do is look at the ramifications which are now knocking on the door of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, both in the Cabinet. Central to this is why £625,000 was given to the student run Vote BeLeave campaign to spend on a Vote Leave analytical company, when Vote Leave was not supposed to be connected to Vote BeLeave – and could breach strict campaign spending guidelines. There are also the very serious allegations – of the mass removal of emails and links between Vote BeLeave and the two highly seasoned campaigners, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers alliance fame and chief executive of Vote Leave, and the aggressive ex special adviser Dominic Cummings, who jointly ran Vote Leave. He is denying this happened but it appears the whistleblower has sent information to the Electoral commission contradicting that.
Did Gove and Johnson know? and why is Johnson just saying it is ludicrous to suggest this happened – ” sound bites ” don’t make the issue go away.
And finally there is the behaviour of Theresa May’s political secretary. Stephen Parkinson, in deciding the world should know about his previous love life with the whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni. Shahmir did not wish to go public to the whole world that he was gay. Mr Parkinson is not some political celeb – his role, as I am sure he will be reminded pretty quickly by the Cabinet Office, is to stay in the background not to become part of a public love story. Most people won’t care a damn who he sleeps with – so the only real reason can be a botched attempt to discredit and embarrass the whistleblower.
Parkinson also has previous form. According to Spinwatch’s Lobbying Portal he is an experienced campaigner, being part of the ” No to AV ” campaign to stop the alternative vote in 2011. He also was involved in the scandal over whether the Tories had broken election law in 2015 by overspending. They were mainly cleared of this but there is a legal case pending in May against Craig Mackinley, Tory MP for South Thanet, his agent and a Tory campaigner, for making false election returns. Parkinson has worked for Theresa May since 2012 – apart from his work on the Vote Leave campaign.
The real problem for the government is that the next revelations could come from anywhere – it could come from the US investigations or it could come from the UK if more whistleblowers come forward. They are not in control. So far the reaction has been pure bluster.
I can see in the end the most serious issue will be the use of people’s data by political organisations and breach of privacy – which will even override the bitter aftermath of Brexit and the US election result.
Probably cancelled by the fact that the PM was recommending remain. And the direct interference by the American President Obama in the referendum, telling the British people to vote remain, followed by a threat that if they didn’t vote to remain they would be last in the queue for a trade deal with the USA.
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