Are Cambridge Analytica tech geniuses or tech cowboys?

Facebook execs called to Parliament to give evidence about the use of personal data Credit: PA

Here are a few thoughts about the furore over whether Cambridge Analytica subverted the US presidential election by improperly exploiting data about the preferences and habits of tens of millions of Facebook users.

1) The serious data scientists I know are sceptical that so-called micro-targeting and the use of detailed psychological profiling in political campaigns - that is designing propaganda minutely customised to an individual's characteristics, as CA claims to do - is terribly effective (yet).

2) So even if CA tried to do this on behalf of Trump - and CA denies this - chances are it would have had or in fact had negligible impact.

3) But as Vote Leave demonstrated in the EU referendum, as indeed all elections and plebiscites have done since time immemorial, it certainly helps to send messages to those who may be more susceptible to them.

Vote leave proved that it helps to send messages to those most susceptible to them. Credit: PA

In Vote Leave's case, it created a target group of 6m to 9m persuadable voters, using new polling techniques and mathematical modelling (called Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification, or MRP), and also by persuading punters to reveal their EU leanings via a clever online football game.

Vote Leave then "zapped" the target group (in the words of a source) via Facebook.

And what voters were zapped was typically a broad message, like "£350m for the NHS" or "a Turkish invasion looms",

The important point is that Vote Leave barely used micro-targeting, except when there was a message linked to concerns about emotional issues such as animal welfare - which, to state the obvious, tend to be effective with voters who've revealed on social media their love of animals.

But Vote Leave was still much smarter than the Remain campaign in devoting almost all their campaign resources to a digital and social-media strategy.

Alexander Nix has been accused of “deliberately misleading” Parliament by denying allegations of harvesting personal data from Facebook users Credit: PA

4) One puzzle is that if CA is as brilliant in data analytics and AI as both it and its arch critics claim - if it is using cutting edge science to brainwash voters and subvert democracy - why on earth would it waste time offering clients old-fashioned dirty-tricks ruses to secure election, as its suspended boss Alexander Nix was recorded doing in a Channel 4 sting (though later CA denied it in fact does any of this).

If it's possible to bring down a political opponent by online special ops, why would its then boss talk of the firm's expertise in honeytraps and bribes (even if he was swaggering rather than making a serious proposal)?

5) None of which is to say that the New York Times's and Observer's scoop, that Cambridge Analytica, allegedly had access to personal data about tens of millions of Facebook users was anything other than explosive.

What it has highlighted more than anything is the potential for businesses to make a ton of money out of finding out as much about each of us as they can from social media and the internet - though usually businesses use this data to flog us stuff, rather than influence our votes.

What does Facebook know about you? Credit: PA

6) For what it's worth, one of the drivers of the unprecedented accumulation of wealth by founders and early investors in digital companies is that they have been able to exploit personal information about each of us for free (to target relevant ads at us, for example).

7) In theory we now have to give permission for details of our private lives to be exploited by others for commercial or political gain.

But it is clear that many of us give that permission without thinking through the implications.

8) Arguably the best way to ensure we won't reveal who we are too readily or naively would be for governments to force digital companies to pay us for our most personal of property - our tastes, convictions, prejudices, loves, hates and so on.

Were that to happen, we'd all be a bit better off, in all senses, and the owners of the likes of Facebook would be quite a lot poorer (in fact the CA furore, and the threat that FB's freedom to use our data will become more constrained, has already dented the Facebook owners' fortunes by an amount greater than the respective GDPs of Croatia, Bulgaria and Costa Rica).

It would be a market solution to what many see as the cancer of widening inequality, perhaps.