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Cambridge Analytica sought to use Facebook data to predict partisanship for voter targeting, UK investigation confirms

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The UK’s data watchdog has sent a letter to parliament In lieu of a final report on a wide-ranging investigation into online political advertising which saw it raid the offices of Cambridge Analytica in 2018 after it emerged that the disgraced (and now defunct) data company had improperly acquired data on millions of Facebook users.

In the letter the regulator says the material that it reviewed included:

  • 42 laptops and computers;
  • 700 TB of data;
  • 31 servers;
  • over 300,000 documents; and
  • a wide range of material in paper form and from cloud storage devices

“The sheer volume of material seized meant that we were presented with a digital ‘haystack’ of information in various states and locations and this has prolonged the work involved in reviewing and assessing the material to help us understand what happened. However, by piecing together the timeline of events we were able to get a thorough evidential insight into what was likely to have taken place,” it writes before going on to sketch its understanding of how Cambridge Analytica/SCL was operating at the time it paid a Cambridge University academic, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, to improperly procure and process millions of Facebook users’ data with the intention of targeting US voters with ads.

“The conclusion of this work demonstrated that SCL were aggregating datasets from several commercial sources to make predictions on personal data for political alliance purposes,” the ICO writes. “For example, we recovered data which included Voter files (the US version of the Electoral Register), Consumer Data Sets, Social Media and Intelligence Data Sets that appeared to come from the following companies: Labels & Lists, InfoGroup, Aristotle, Magellan, Acxiom and Experian. Some data has the appearance of similar US voter data that has been subject to known cyber breaches and has been available on-line.”

The former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix — who was last month banned from running a company for seven years, after he signed a disqualification undertaking with the UK insolvency service — previously told the UK parliament that CA/SCL had acquired the bulk of the data it was using to build psychographic profiles of voters from major commercial data brokers such as Acxiom, Experian and Infogroup.

Per the ICO’s assessment, CA/SCL had been over-egging the depth of its people profiling — with the regulator saying it did not find evidence to back up claims in its marketing material that it had “5,000+ data points per individual on 230 million adult Americans”.

“Based on what we found it appears that this may have been an exaggeration,” it writes.

The ICO was satisfied that the Facebook data transferred to CA/SCL by Dr Kogan’s company was incorporated into a pre-existing larger database it already held — containing “voter file, demographic and consumer data for US individuals”.

“The data points collected by GSR [Dr Kogan’s company] with respect to [Facebook app] survey users and their Facebook ‘friends’ was specifically selected to enable a ‘matching’ process against pre-existing SCL databases,” it writes, explaining its understanding of how CA/SCL used the improperly obtained Facebook data. “Matching took place using file sharing platforms and by reference to name, date of birth and location – with SCL’s existing datafiles being ‘enriched’ and supplemented by GSR’s data about those same individuals – and this matched information being passed back into SCL systems.

“This resulted for example information including scores for voting frequency, whether likely republican or democrat, voting consistency, and a profile which predicted personality traits matched to information such as voter ID, name, address, age, and other commercial data.”

The investigation also confirmed CA/SCL applied AI techniques to the data to try to predict partisanship or other significant attributes of voters for the purpose of more effectively targeting them with political messaging. Although it says it was unable to confirm whether such techniques were used in specific campaigns.

“Through such processes the relevant US voter GSR data (about approx. 30 million individuals) was then further analysed using machine learning algorithms to create additional ‘predicted’ scores relating to partisanship and other criteria which were then applied to all the individuals in the database. Some of these focussed on likes as wide ranging as “gay rights”, “Obama the worst president in US history”, “Re-elect President Obama in 2012”, “the Bible” and “National Rifle Association”,” it writes.

“These scores were used to identify clusters of similar individuals who could be potentially targeted with advertising relating to political campaigns. This targeted advertising was ultimately likely the final purpose of the data gathering but whether or which specific data from GSR was then used in any specific part of campaign has not been possible to determine from the digital evidence reviewed. There is however evidence recovered that suggests that similar approaches and models based on the predicted personality traits and other measures were used with Republican National Committee (RNC) data.”

On CA’s/SCL’s data modelling methods the ICO concludes that the company was mainly using “well recognised processes using commonly available technology”.

“For example, open source data science libraries such as ‘scikit’ were downloaded by SCL – containing well established, widely used algorithms for data visualisation, analysis and predictive modelling. It was these third-party libraries which formed the majority of SCL’s data science activities which were observed by the ICO,” it writes. “Using these libraries, SCL tested multiple different machine learning model architectures, activation functions and optimisers (all of which come pre-developed within the third-party libraries) to determine which combinations produced the most accurate predictions on any given dataset. We understand this procedure is well established within the wider data science community, and in our view does not show any proprietary technology, or processes, within SCL’s work.”

The regulator further notes there are ongoing questions over the efficacy of such modelling for predicting individuals’ attributes — highlighting signs of internal scepticism over the approach.

“Through the ICO’s analysis of internal company communications, the investigation identified there was a degree of scepticism within SCL as to the accuracy or reliability of the processing being undertaken. There appeared to be concern internally about the external messaging when set against the reality of their processing,” it notes.

The ICO’s investigation also did not find evidence that the Facebook data that Dr Aleksandr Kogan sold to Cambridge Analytica was used for political campaigning associated with the UK’s Brexit Referendum. “Our view on review of the evidence is that the data from GSR could not have been used in the Brexit Referendum as the data shared with SCL/Cambridge Analytica by Dr Kogan related to US registered voters,” it writes.

A lack of evidence that UK Facebook users’ data had been used for the political targeting was Facebook’s contention when it challenged the ICO’s £500k penalty for the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The regulator eventually settled with Facebook last year — although the company did not admit liability.

The ICO’s letter also discusses the Canada-based data company AIQ, which was linked to CA/SCL, and did play a key role in the UK’s Brexit referendum — as it was used by several ‘Leave’ campaigns to target ads at UK voters via Facebook.

“There was a range of evidence that demonstrated a very close relationship between AIQ and SCL (such as evidence that described AIQ as the Canadian branch of SCL and evidence that Facebook invoices to AIQ for advertising were paid directly by SCL). However, AIQ has consistently denied having a closer relationship beyond that between a software developer and their client. Mr Silvester (a director/owner of AIQ) has stated that in 2014 SCL ‘asked us to create SCL Canada but we declined’,” the ICO writes.

The regulator says it investigated whether AIQ had used the same datasets to target adverts at UK voters on behalf of three different ‘Leave’ campaigns: Vote Leave, BeLeave, the DUP and Veterans for Britain — but it did not find evidence that this occurred.

“Initial information provided by Facebook had suggested that there were three audiences that were used for targeting by both Vote Leave and BeLeave. However, AIQ subsequently clarified that this was an admin error made by a junior member of staff while creating the BeLeave account. The error was corrected the following day and no information from those campaigns was disseminated through Facebook in the form of targeted ads,” it writes.

While the ICO’s letter-to-parliament in lieu of a more formal final report may appear to be something of an anticlimax to a long-running data misuse scandal, the regulator reiterates concerns over what the letter couches as “systemic vulnerabilities in our democratic systems”.

Although information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, does not further flesh out her earlier publicly stated concern that democracy is being disrupted by big data.

Instead the letter notes the ICO has provided “advice and guidance” with the aim of achieving better future compliance with the rules to several unnamed organisations on the remain and the leave side of the UK’s referendum.

“My audit teams have also concluded audits of data protection compliance at 14 organisations associated with the original investigation, including: the main political parties, the main credit reference agencies and major data brokers, as well as Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre. We have made significant recommendations for changes to comply with data protection legislation,” she adds.

The detail of those “significant” recommendations are pending reports of the ICO’s audits of the main political parties; the main credit reference agencies and major data brokers; and Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre — which it notes will be published “shortly”.

One more interesting detail from the ICO’s CA/SCL investigation is it appears the company had been planning to relocate its data offshore to avoid regulatory scrutiny — presumably as the media furore around the Facebook data scandal cast a spotlight on its processes.

“We also identified evidence that in its latter stages SCL /CA was drawing up plans to relocate its data offshore to avoid regulatory scrutiny by ICO. We have followed up their complex company structure with overseas counterparts and have concluded that while plans were drawn up, the company was unable to put them into effect before it ceased trading,” is the regulator’s conclusion on that.

On the Facebook data-set itself, the ICO says its investigation found data “in a variety of locations, with little thought for effective security measures”. “We found that individuals of interest to the investigation held data on various Gmail accounts,” it notes. “Data was also found in servers and appeared to have been shared with a range of parties, for example there was evidence that data had been shared with staff at SCL/CA, Eunoia Technologies Inc [CA whistleblower Chris Wylie‘s company], the University of Cambridge and the University of Toronto.”

The letter also reveals that a number of unnamed “senior figures” associated with the scandal have continued to refuse to cooperate with the ICO’s investigation. “Several senior figures have continued to maintain their silence and have declined to be interviewed,” it notes.   

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SoftBank’s $100 million diversity and inclusion fund makes its first bet … in health Vitable Health

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SoftBank’s Opportunity Growth Fund has made the health insurance startup Vitable Health the first commitment from its $100 million fund dedicated to investing in startups founded by entrepreneurs of color.

The Philadelphia-based company, which recently launched from Y Combinator, is focused on bringing basic health insurance to underserved and low-income communities.

Founded by Joseph Kitonga, a 23 year-old entrepreneur whose parents immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, Vitable provides affordable acute healthcare coverage to underinsured or un-insured populations and was born out of Kitonga’s experience watching employees of his parents’ home healthcare agency struggle to receive basic coverage.

The $1.5 million commitment was led by the SoftBank Group Corp Opportunity Fund, and included Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Commerce Ventures, MSA Capital, Coughdrop Capital, and angels like Immad Akhund, the chief executive of Mercury Bank; and Allison Pickens, the former chief operating officer of Gainsight, the company said in a blog post.

“Good healthcare is a basic right that every American deserves, whoever they are,” said Paul Judge, the Atlanta-based Early Stage Investing Lead for the fund and the founder of Atlanta’s TechSquare Labs investment fund. “We’ve been inspired by Joseph and his approach to addressing this challenge. Vitable Health is bridging critical gaps in patient care and has emerged as a necessary, essential service for all whether they’re uninsured, underinsured, or simply need a better plan for their lifestyle.”

SoftBank created the opportunity fund while cities around the U.S. were witnessing a wave of public protests against systemic racism and police brutality stemming from the murder of the Black Minneapolis citizen George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.  Floyd’s murder reignited simmering tensions between citizens and police in cities around the country over issues including police brutality, the militarization of civil authorities, and racial profiling.

SoftBank has had its own problems with racism in its portfolio this year. A few months before the firm launched its fund, the CEO and founder of one of its portfolio companies, Banjo, resigned after it was revealed that he once had ties to the KKK.

With the Opportunity Fund, SoftBank is trying to address some of its issues, and notably, will not take a traditional management fee for transactions out of the fund “but instead will seek to put as much capital as possible into the hands of founders and entrepreneurs of color.”

The Opportunity Fund is the third investment vehicle announced by SoftBank in the last several years. The biggest of them all is the $100 billion Vision Fund; then last year it announced the $2 billion Innovation Fund focused on Latin America.

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I’ve fallen for the electric Hummer and I hate myself for it

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If you’ve switched on the motoring news this morning you’ll see it’s dominated by something that’s more used to dominating tarmac than headlines: the Hummer. Not just any Hummer, though, but the upcoming 1,000 horsepower all-electric brute from GMC.

Needless to say, people are pretty pumped that the Detroit icon is reviving the Hummer name for the 21st century, but what exactly is there to be excited about?

Well the vehicle itself is the center of the show right now, so let’s take a look at its specs and what’s been announced.

car, ev, hummer
Credit: GMC Hummer
The new Hummer EV certainly looks like a Hummer, and is certainly a Hummer in spirit. But this time, it’s electric.

As already mentioned, GM estimates that it’ll produce 1,000hp and over 11,000 lb ft of torque, enough to help it go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds — allegedly.

[Read: What audience intelligence data tells us about the 2020 US presidential election]

It’s also slated to come with a host of driver aids such as under body cameras for whenever it goes off-road, and a “crab walk” feature, which enables the truck to strafe its way diagonally out of tight spots. This could actually make it a heck of a lot easier to park — even though that’s not really what that system was designed for.

under car camera, ev, hummer
Credit: GMC Hummer
There are also underbody cameras to make sure you can clear rocks, tree stumps, and other off-road debris. More likely it’ll be used to film under-car Beastie Boy covers.

For those that refuse to let go of the past, you’re in luck, it looks decidedly Hummerish. It’s also proportioned like a Hummer, in that it’s bloody massive. Looking at it head-on, you’re faced with the recognizable slab-like front-end, a lobster it is not. From the side, you’ll see the wide and square arches that have been a feature of Hummers since their US military days.

electric, hummer
Credit: GMC Hummer
The front-end, there’s no mistaking what this is supposed to be.

Even though it’s as aerodynamic as a barn, GMC still expects its rangiest variant to be able to drive around 350 miles on a single charge. It’s also supposed to be able to add 100 miles of range in just 10 minutes when hooked up to a compatible charger.

The biggest battery EVer

How does it do this? Well, it crams in an absolutely huge battery pack. Jason Fenske of Engineering Explained — who got a sneak peak at the Hummer EV — was told that the battery is more than 200 kWh in capacity. That’s more than double the size of the average EV battery. Given that its 0-60 time and range is on par with Teslas, which have much smaller packs, this is a big hint at how inefficient this thing really is. This is a problem, but we’ll get to that shortly.

The upside is that the Hummer is built on GM’s Ultium platform that’s going to underpin a smorgasbord of EVs. The huge battery pack fitted here could be a Boone for delivery vans and commercial vehicles that benefit from the increased range.

hummer, gmc, ev, future, interior
Credit: GMC Hummer
There’s space for five adults in a good amount of luxury. It is nowhere near as utilitarian as the old Hummers.

Thankfully, the inside of the vehicle is a significant departure from old Hummers, which somehow always felt a lot smaller than they should have given their exterior dimensions. 

The interior is like any other large modern SUV. Luxurious, draped in leather, and with space for five people. The car’s interior features dashboard screens that, 20 years ago, would have been acceptable sizes for living room TVs.

EV, hummer, future, spec, trim, levels
Credit: GMC
The Hummer EV is going to be offered in four spec levels. It’s only the top spec model that gets all the power and all the range.

Under the hood, it’s also nothing like Hummers of old and that’s obviously why we are here to talk about it, because it’s electric. Depending on the spec level you can get either two or three motors. The cheaper two motor versions have less power and less range, it’s only the $113,000 top spec Edition 1 that gets three motors to put out 1,000hp.

Because there’s no gas-guzzling motor under the hood, it also has a generous frunk, which is a nice addition for a pickup as it gives drivers somewhere secure to store valuables instead of leaving them on a truck bed for anyone to pinch.

frunk, trunk, junk
Credit: GMC Hummer
No massive engine means there’s more space for luggage! Is this the biggest frunk on the market?

What’s more, thanks to its motor arrangement, drivers will be provided with heaps of control over how it drives. This means they can force the rear wheels to match speed, simulating the effect of a locking rear differential which is great for towing and off-roading in bad conditions.

There’s also rear-wheel steering which means the Hummer EV will actually be able to navigate tight turns better than its combustion-powered predecessors. And of course, it gets GM’s Super Cruise ADAS tech to take the sting out of long drives with some partial automation.

ev, rear wheel, steergin
Credit: GMC Hummer
One of the most exciting features of modern electric trucks is how their drivetrains enable more control over driving dynamics and characteristics.

It’s a Hummer, but it’s electric

So, the new Hummer EV in a nutshell: it’s electric, it’s packed with modern features, it’s not quite as ridiculous as it used to be, and its performance figures make some sport scars look slow. Indeed, there’s a lot to love about it, and there is a truck loving part of me that is very very excited about it. But I also hate that part of myself.

The new Hummer couldn’t be any different from the original civilian Hummer (which is a very good thing) but at the same time, it’s still very much a Hummer in spirit and that’s very bad.

It’s inefficient and needlessly excessive. This truck isn’t exactly about saving the planet. On its launch website, there’s just one mention of it being zero emission, one! There’s also no mention of recycled materials used in its construction.

wheels, tyres, ev
Credit: GMC Hummer
The Hummer is so big, it needed specially designed 35-inch tires. Yeh, it’s kind of excessive. But that’s why we love it, and why we hate ourselves.

The focus is on performance, power, and presence, which it has in spades, but those are just a distraction from the reality that it’s huge, expensive, and will never actually be used in conditions it was designed for.

Amazing truck, mediocre EV

I expect the Hummer to be a very good truck, perhaps one of the best. But as far as EVs go, it can’t be held in high regard, simply because GMC engineers have given it its performance by using a massive battery.

What’s more, it uses pouch cell batteries, not cylindrical cells that are becoming increasingly common. Pouch cell EV batteries have been around for ages, they’re used in the BMW i3 which is getting on for eight years old. Cars of the future need to be intelligently and efficiently designed, should use resources sparingly, and should strive for minimal impact on the world. But the Hummer…? A Hummer will never be those things, EV or not.

hummer, ev
Credit: GMC Hummer
The interior of the Hummer is more like a modern SUV than a military vehicle. For all intent and purpose, this is mostly just a Hummer in name and spirit than anything else.

Yes, it’s a good thing that it’s powered by electricity and cuts emissions. If GMC can convert even a few hundred old-school truck-loving coal-rolling climate change-deniers who are unable to let go of the past to EVs then it’s a worthy victory.

The main reason the original civilian Hummers, the H1 and H2, were pulled from production 10 years ago is because they drank gasoline like it was booze the night before new lockdown measures, and pumped out emissions like there was no tomorrow. The electric drivetrain of this new one might fix that, but the Hummer EV is still massive. It will be wildly impractical in towns and cities, and screams of unnecessary excess.

ev, off road,
Credit: GMC Hummer
A picture of the Hummer EV doing something that it’ll probably never do in its life, driving off-road.

The sad reality is that the people that will buy these won’t be buying them for their performance or off-road capability. This car does not demonstrate a collective cultural progression towards a sustainable future, it’s an attempt at remedying our oil loving hangover with electrified Alka-Seltzer.

We just don’t need cars like this.

Even though the new Hummer EV is everything we don’t need right now, I still love it, and I hate myself for that.


SHIFT is brought to you by Polestar. It’s time to accelerate the shift to sustainable mobility. That is why Polestar combines electric driving with cutting-edge design and thrilling performance. Find out how.

Published October 21, 2020 — 13:53 UTC

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The Desklab 4K touchscreen monitor is the work from home laptop accessory you need

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TL;DR: Between a stunning 4K display, multiple connection ports, a power battery, and more, the Desklab Portable Touchscreen Monitor is as versatile as they come.

Computer accessories really have to prove their worth these days. However, there’s probably little chance a new device is going to play its way into becoming a part of your already overloaded everyday carry collection.

As it turns out, the Desklab Portable 4K Touchscreen Monitor is kind of like that kid in school who constantly raised their hand to answer every teacher question. Because the Desklab has an answer for just about every laptop and smartphone owner’s need in a peripheral device.

Backed by nearly $700,000 in funding on Kickstarter, the Desklab starts by being a stellar 4K travel screen. The unit is a 15-inch screen weighing just 1.3 lbs and at just over 0.2 inches thick. The Desklab is not only thinner than most tablets, but the screen size and resolution are also comparable with anything else in its weight class. 

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Hooked to a laptop, it’s a perfect extra screen to optimize your workflow. Attached to a smartphone, it transforms all your videos and other media in your phone into a stunning, scaled-up, crystal clear cinematic experience with true LED backlighting and vivid color. You can even attach it to a gaming platform like an Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendo Switch and have 4K gameplay with stereo sound from the built-in speakers anywhere. The Desklab is plug-and-play with virtually everything.

While its screen performance is mighty, it’s the Desklab’s added versatility that makes it so instantly valuable. If your laptop is short on available ports, the Desklab sports five of its own, including two USB-C ports, HDMI, Micro USB, and even 3.5mm AUX for all your other devices and connections.

It’s even got its own on-board power battery, allowing it to pull extra duty as a portable charger, keeping any of your other devices charged up.

Its wide-ranging functionality is already drawing great reviews, with Nerdy Tech saying in terms of the overall design, “it’s clearly one of the best.” And Yanko Design said, “Think of everything you wish your laptop had and put it in a laptop accessory, and you get something quite like the Desklab.”

Right now, the power of the Desklab Portable 4K Touchscreen Monitor is available on sale for $319. Don’t need all that resolution? Save some cash and opt for the Desklab Portable Touchscreen Monitor 1080P, on sale for $249.

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