Cambridge University declines our information request over Cambridge Analytica


The University of Cambridge has rejected a freedom of information request from WikiTribune related to an internal dispute over the work of the academic who is a key character in the data scandal that has engulfed Facebook, though the university said it recognised there was public interest in the information.

WikiTribune submitted a freedom of information request under Britain’s Freedom of Informaton Act. Our request related to an external arbitration process four years ago between Aleksandr Kogan – the academic accused of scraping and selling millions of Facebook profiles to political consultancy Cambridge Analytica – and Cambridge’s psychometrics center. Others in the center had raised questions about the ethics of Kogan’s work and its sale.

The fact arbitration occurred as part of the university’s attempts to settle deep concerns among some of Kogan’s colleagues at the psychometrics center about the legitimacy of his work was reported by The Financial Times (may be behind paywall).

We also requested information on the exact date the university was first made aware of Kogan’s work with Cambridge Analytica. (The political data company has no relationship with the university itself but made its own commercial arrangements with a company Kogan created for that purpose to market the results of psychometric analysis.)

Cambridge University declined WikiTribune‘s request because it said the documents we sought were exempt under freedom of information rules since they contained information that could be covered by a claim to legal professional privilege, effectively Kogan’s right to privacy as an employee.

“The University has considered whether, in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information,” it said in a statement.

Read WikiTribune‘s related coverage on the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal:

However, although the university acknowledged the public interest of the request and said it took into account “general arguments concerning the transparency of its operations, especially given the current media interest in matters relating to this issue,” it decided these were outranked by the need for it to protect confidential legal advice.

Kogan, a psychologist and data scientist at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology, is one of the key players in an affair that’s caused regulators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic to zero in on Facebook’s privacy practices. He developed the app that gathered Facebook data on at least 87 million people which he allegedly then sold to Cambridge Analytica. The political data firm then used the information to profile and target millions of voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Kogan says he’s been scapegoated by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Following reports published by The Observer, The New York Times, and British broadcaster Channel Four that blew the cover on the scandal, Facebook’s share price dropped from $185 in mid-March to $157 in early April, wiping billions of dollars of company stock – although the company’s share price has since recovered. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before a congressional panel on April 10 and has effectively said Facebook data was misused by Kogan and Cambridge Analytica and vowed to improve controls on personal data.

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