Cambridge Analytica Owner Pleads Guilty to Violating U.K. Data Laws

SCL Elections will be fined 15,000 pounds in case involving U.S. professor

Cambridge Analytica's parent company, SCL, pleaded guilty to violating data laws in the U.K. Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

The parent company of the now shuttered data firm Cambridge Analytica has been fined 15,000 pounds after pleading guilty to violating UK data laws.

According to The Guardian, SCL Elections pleaded guilty to breaching the Data Protection Act after it didn’t comply with a U.S. professor’s request for information about the data the company had collected on him.

The professor, David Carroll, an American citizen and professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, has spent more than a year requesting a copy of his data from the firm, which had been at the center of the ongoing debate over online privacy before going into administration—the British equivalent of bankruptcy court—in May 2018.

With clients including the U.S. presidential campaign of President Donald Trump, Cambridge Analytica came into the spotlight—and under the microscope—after Facebook kicked the company off of its platform in April 2018 for allegedly harvesting and misusing data from nearly 100 million Americans. The company later shut down after a whistleblower revealed that the company had accessed and used data for creating profiles for political campaigns. Last year’s revelations, however, sparked a broader conversation about the value of data and users’ right to privacy that has since encompassed Facebook, Google and other online giants struggling to retain user trust while also meeting advertisers’ demand for data-heavy targeted advertising.

SCL could not be reached for comment. But The Guardian reported that SCL had responded to Carroll’s data request “by claiming that as a non-UK citizen, Carroll had no more right to submit a subject-access request ‘than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in Afghanistan.'”

Responding to the news of the ruling, Carroll, a former engineer for ad-tech companies in New York, tweeted a link to a story about the guilty plea, adding just two words: “Vindicated again.”

“I am to receive a victim’s surcharge of 170 pounds,” he wrote on Twitter this morning. “They could have just given me all my data. They would rather plead guilty to a criminal offense.”

The UK ruling is especially timely as brands, advertisers and internet companies grapple with how to navigate online data privacy rules included in the General Data Protection Regulations enacted in 2018 in the European Union, along with California’s sweeping state law that will be enforced in 2020. Both laws require companies to provide citizens with a full report of the data collected about them, and failure to comply could result in monetary penalties. British law required companies to provide information about data collected even before GDPR went into effect.

Before the fallout from Facebook, Cambridge Analytica had opened an office in New York to try and court the commercial world to use the same data-powered profiling that the company had successfully used in politics.  Speaking with Adweek in 2016, former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix said the company had also worked with the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, along with some down-ballot races.

“Political campaigns just move at a different speed than the commercial world,” Nix said at the time. “It’s a little bit like a doctor who’s operating in the theater of war.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.