Cambridge Analytica scandal 'a gross violation,' Ottawa data firm's CEO says

Cambridge Analytica's claims that it influenced the Trump election were a marketing ploy, the CEO of an Ottawa-based analytics firm believes.

Claims company influenced Trump election a marketing ploy gone wrong, Erin Kelly believes

Erin Kelly is CEO of Advanced Symbolics, an artificial intelligence technology company in Ottawa. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Cambridge Analytica's claims that it influenced the Trump election were a marketing ploy, according to an Ottawa-based analytics firm, which says the British company had boasted about its influence long before it became the centre of a privacy and political manipulation scandal.

Cambridge Analytica, which worked on U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, has been accused of improperly using the information of more than 50 million Facebook users.

Last week Britain's Channel 4 News broadcast shared secretly recorded clips of the company's CEO Alexander Nix saying his firm played a major role in securing Trump's election victory, including "all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting."

The London-based company denies wrongdoing.

Erin Kelly, CEO of Ottawa's Advanced Symbolics Inc., said she heard of Cambridge Analytica's self-marketing well before the scandal erupted.

"We've had quite a few customers approach us over the last 18 months sending us stuff on Cambridge Analytica and asking can we do something like Cambridge Analytica," Kelly said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"We have been telling our customers for 18 months, if you go down this route you are going to regret it in the future because we feel they are a gross violation of privacy."

Marketing ploy gone wrong?

Britain's information commissioner is investigating whether Cambridge Analytica improperly used personal data to target voters with ads and political messages during the 2016 presidential election. 

But Kelly said there's no proof the company influenced the election, and believes the claim could be a marketing strategy that backfired.

The nameplate of political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, is seen in central London on March 21, 2018. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

"There is no evidence to support that claim, [and] as far as we are concerned that's marketing for Cambridge Analytica," said Kelly. "They have never once commissioned a study to prove that they were instrumental in getting Trump elected, and it is very [easily] provable."

Kelly said the central issue is the privacy violation of taking the personal information, regardless of whether the election was influenced.   

"They still violated people's personal privacy, and that still needs to be addressed regardless," she said. "Knowing that someone has your file, that is still a gross violation."

Canadian privacy laws 

Canada's privacy watchdog launched its own investigation into Facebook last week to look into the social media giant's connection to the scandal. 

In a blog post, Facebook said that, while none of the information leak was a result of a data breach, it did appear to involve the passing of personal information from Cambridge Analytica to a third party when that data was supposed to have been destroyed.

In order to protect Canadians, the country's privacy regulations and laws need to be more stringent, Kelly said, adding that the CRTC needs to get more involved.

Canada should adopt the European Union's model of privacy laws, she said.

"When [ads are] personally micro-targeted, it's a problem," she said. "When people know your address and phone number and then they start predicting what you are going to buy in the store — you personally — that's when I think it gets to be a violation."