The Cambridge Analytica shutdown isn't a cause for celebration, data harvesting isn't going to stop so easily

According to CA, it was treated unfairly for practices which are a standard component of online advertising in the commercial and political spheres

Cambridge Analytica, the company which has been in the news recently for meddling with the Facebook user data of close to 87 million users, and which is being investigated by regulators in the US and UK, has shut shop. For a data firm that has important clients, a lot of them with political interests, this was a foregone conclusion.

The Cambridge Analytica shutdown isnt a cause for celebration, data harvesting isnt going to stop so easily

The offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London. AP

After suspending its then CEO Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica continued to lose clients and its legal bills continued to rise, thanks to the Facebook investigations. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, SCL Group and SCL Elections, two organisations affiliated with Cambridge Analytica are also shutting down their offices in the US and the UK.

Blaming the media for the current situation, a joint statement by Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections said, "Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations. The siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the company’s customers and suppliers. As a result, it has been determined that it is no longer viable to continue operating the business.” Parallel bankruptcy proceedings would also begin shortly, the company said.

According to Cambridge Analytica, it was treated unfairly for practices which are a standard component of online advertising in the commercial and political spheres.

According to WSJ, company employees saw this coming and current SCL chairman Julian Wheatland said that the company would effectively be shut down by Wednesday. He also said that an "independent investigation" of the company was completed, finding it not guilty. For an outsider, an independent investigation commissioned by Cambridge Analytica itself can sound like nothing but a sham.

New bottle, old wine

Just because Cambridge Analytica has announced that it is shutting down, it does not in any way mean the kind of work it did will also shut down. Far from it.

By its own admission, as discovered by Channel 4 in an undercover investigation, Nix and a representative from Cambridge Analytica had bragged about how it has been operating in many markets under various pseudonyms and in a way that it couldn't be traced back to Cambridge Analytica. What's to stop it from operating under a new name in a non-US or UK market?

This New York Times report even hints at the fact that Cambridge Analytica executives and SCL Group along with the Mercer family have created a new company called Emerdata, which is UK-based. Could Emerdata be a rebranded Cambridge Analytica? Why can't it? It's like the fabled Hydra or an unkillable torrent site. Chop one head and another two will rise to take its place. In the case of Cambridge Analytica, the business remains, it's only the name that's changing.

Lest we forget, Cambridge Analytica could still have access to the vast trove of data it has on 87 million users, all of which was acquired from Facebook. According to NYT, people who are familiar with the matter said that there were even plans to sell off the combined data of Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group along with intellectual properties. If true, this is something that will not go down well with regulators.

CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, speaks during the Web Summit, Europe's biggest tech conference, in Lisbon, Portugal, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes - RC1C55D2F2F0

CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, speaks during the Web Summit, Europe's biggest tech conference, in Lisbon, Portugal, November 9, 2017. Image: Reuters

Whether you like it or not, Cambridge Analytica had proved its mettle (helping with the Trump campaign in the 2016 US Presidential elections), albeit with questionable means. But if its talents can help politicians win elections, then there will always be a lot of interested parties. With election narratives increasingly being exploited online, data manipulation and data harvesting will still continue, irrespective of Cambridge Analytica. It was natural that no political party would have liked to be associated with Cambridge Analytica after the Facebook data scandal came to light. But if it's another company doing similar work, and which hasn't been pounded by the media both offline and online, it's fair game for any ambitious political party. There's big money in this venture as well.

Here's a paper explaining how Big Data analytics has, in the recent past and most likely in the future too, played a big role in winning political campaigns.

Of course, Facebook, we hope, will not be part of this equation in the way it was with the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, but there are other ways come up with psychographic profiles. This report explains how Peter Thiel' data-mining company, Palantir, has multiple tools at its disposal to track American citizens.

Investigations to continue

If Cambridge Analytica thought that shutting down the company would solve matters, then that won't be the case. According to the BBC, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has clearly said that civil and criminal investigations against Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group will continue. They are also not permitted to delete their data history by shutting down.

"We've got to make sure this isn't an attempt to run and hide, that these companies are not closing down to try to avoid them being rigorously investigated over the allegations that are being made against them," said Damian Collins chair of the Commons select committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

To sum it up, Cambridge Analytica shutting down is just a symbolic measure. The work it was doing though, will still continue in some form or the other.

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