NEW: Cambridge Analytica May Have Violated U.S. Election Laws

Following the revelations that U.K.-based data firm Cambridge Analytica misused social media data of over 50 million people, it is being reported the group allegedly violated U.S. election laws.

As ABC News reports, a pair of legal complaints have been filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Department of Justice by Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

In the complaints, officials from Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL Group Limited are being accused for violating election law prohibiting foreign officials from “participating directly or indirectly in the decision-making process of U.S. political campaigns.”

The officials, per ABC News, includes CEO Alexander Nix, SCL co-founder Nigel Oakes, data scientist Alexander Tayler, and former employee-turned-whistleblower Christopher Wylie.

From the report:

The legal filings allege that Cambridge Analytica and its executives ignored [lawyer Laurence] Levy’s advice and allowed foreigners to be involved in “management decisions of U.S. political committee clients concerning expenditures and disbursements during the 2014 and 2016 elections.”

Common Cause is calling for both the FEC and the Justice Department to investigate any potential election law violations and impose appropriate sanctions and restraints.

“It defies belief that even after their own attorney warned them that they would be violating the prohibition on performing certain election-related activities in U.S. elections that they did so anyway,” said Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause vice president for policy and litigation. “A full investigation must be conducted, and if Cambridge Analytica and its staff did in fact repeatedly violate our laws, then there must be punishment levied sufficient to deter similar lawbreaking in future.”

Cambridge Analytica has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing involving accusations of collecting data from millions of Facebook profiles without knowledge and issued a statement to that effect last week.

Acting CEO Alexander Taylor called the accusations “disturbing” and described them as very serious. He subsequently denied all accusations of illegal activity.

“We take the disturbing recent allegations of unethical practices in our non-US political business very seriously,” Taylor said in a statement, per ABC News. “As anyone who is familiar with our staff and work can testify, we in no way resemble the politically-motivated and unethical company that some have sought to portray.”

Here’s a thread similarly arguing the data firm violated U.S. law:

Senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavior Research and Technology Robert Epstein instead argued the research was not in violation of the law, via the Daily Caller:

I conduct scientific research on online manipulation, and, at this point, I probably know more about it than anyone else in the world. Online manipulation of our thinking, opinions, purchases and votes is real, powerful and scary; the numbers are mindboggling, in fact. But Cambridge Analytica is not the problem, mainly because the methods it uses to manipulate are not very powerful. Compared with the real threats out there, they are, in fact, trivial.

Cambridge Analytica’s main method of influence was to send people targeted ads on [social media], just as thousands of other companies do every day. A targeted ad is one designed to capture the attention and clicks of particular people. The more you know about the your audience, the more successful you will be in designing an ad that will draw their clicks, and those clicks in turn will drive people to web pages that contain persuasive content.

Cambridge Analytica claims to have purchased 5,000 “data points” — that is, digital facts — about every voter in America before the 2016 election, as well as to have employed new psychometric techniques to figure out how best to influence those voters. Cambridge Analytica’s data and methodology allowed them to display their ads to hand-picked [social media] users, and that, in turn, should have increased what marketers call the “clickthrough rate” (CTR) — the proportion of people who click on their ads.

Why is this no big deal? Because everybody does it – not just vendors trying to sell us their wares, but all of the political campaigns.

Epstein also argues that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton had “more powerful digital tools at her disposal than Trump did.” Read more here.

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