Tuesday, April 3, 2018

SCL Group - The Company Behind the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook Scandal

While Cambridge Analytica has garnered headlines for its role in the recent Facebook scandal, its parent company has pretty much received a pass.  In this posting, I hope to shed a little light on the dark world of data and how your personal information is used to both sway your vote and influence your opinion on key subjects without your knowledge or explicit consent.  We will be taking a closer look at SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica and how it does business.

As an introduction, SCL Group (known as Strategic Communications Laboratory until 2015) is the privately-held parent company of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a company that was formed in 2013 as an offshoot of SCL.  Interestingly, CA is partly owned and, according to Vox, was created by billionaire hedge fund founder Robert Mercer, a known backer of conservative causes in the United States as shown here:

According to the Vox article, Cambridge Analytica has between 4000 and 5000 data points for every American adult.

Now, let's take a closer look at SCL Group.  While the privately-held SCL Group pretty much flies under the radar, some information about its operations are available on the company's website as shown in this summary of its operations:

"SCL Group provides data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organizations worldwide. For over 25 years, we have conducted behavioral change programs in over 60 countries & have been formally recognized for our work in defense and social change."

The company's vision and mission statements are as follows:

"Our vision is to be the premier provider of data analytics and strategy for behavior change.

Our mission is to create behavior change through research, data, analytics, and strategy for both domestic and international government clients"

According to Bloomberg, here is the company overview for SCL Group:

Here is the Bloomberg overview for Nigel Oakes, SCL's CEO:

If you wish to read more about Nigel Oakes, please click on this fascinating Public Interest Investigations Powerbase link.

Here is a map showing the worldwide locations of SCL Group's offices:

The company touts its capabilities as follows:

1.) Data: SCL Group is "a world leader in collecting and managing structured and unstructured data. We work with client-provided data sets or information we capture for you, even in hostile environments. Data management is the backbone of our practice."

2.) Analytics: SCL Group "extracts value from data, narrowing sizeable data sets to meaningful audience segments and reducing the time and money spent to reach these audiences. We are differentiated by our advanced and proprietary analytics."  This allows the company to provide more insight than standard statistical analysis would provide.

3.) Communication: SCL Group is "highly experienced in managing relationships with target audiences using an array of tools: traditional communication channels, such as TV, radio, print, public relations and direct marketing; highly targeted channels such as social media; and indirect channels such as third party endorsements and network affiliations."

4.) Assessment: SCL Group uses "advanced assessment metrics (based on audience metrics, not program performance metrics) to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs at the audience level."

The company's customers come from four main groups, noting the close links to the United States:

1.) Defense: SCL Group has provided data analytics to Global Combatant Commands, Theatre Special Operations Commands and partner nations since 2009.  The company has also developed a complete assessment model for the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense in Information Operations, the means through which the will of various governments around the world are influenced and through which psychological operations are launched.  The data collected by SCL Group is used to provide insight into human behaviour and measure the effectiveness of programs and campaigns used by military and government agencies.  Here is a quote on the effectiveness of SCL's product line on the recruitment of radicals:

"Counter radicalization examines the propaganda and recruiting messages emanating from terrorist and radical groups to recruit vulnerable targets. SCL employs social science models to understand how radical messages are appealing and uses powerful counter narrative strategies to neutralize misinformation. SCL has an impressive history of reducing radical recruitment over the last decade and is currently supporting this effort for elements of the US government."

SCL data analytics are also used to assist the military in targeting the population of a nation for recruitment, particularly in niche military occupation specialties.

SCL data analytics are also being used to counter the influence of states which use propaganda against the United States and its allies as shown here:

"The information environment has become the new modern battlefield where state and non-state actors employ sophisticated propaganda and disinformation against the US and its allies. SCL is at the vanguard of this fight employing advanced data analytics to identify the misleading campaigns and incorporating our behavioral tools to counter their messaging. Our deep understanding of how maligned propaganda is circulated and consumed allows us to provide alternative narratives and credible perspectives."

2.) Intelligence: SCL Group data is augmented with the company's proprietary quantitative research and behavioural data sets to build predictive models, helping the intelligence community to better understand human behaviour.  The company claims that its data can help predict emerging threats:

"Incidents and unrest that seem to spring up from nowhere can actually be quite predictable - if the right parameters are measured. SCL uses field data incorporating psychological parameters supported by advanced data analytics to deliver detailed Horizon Scanning profiles. This can identify and predict threats long before they actually become a problem to the US and the advance warning allows for effective courses of action."

By using the company's "Phase Zero" country analyses, SCL provides the intelligence community with insight into "the social and power structures in a region and delivers actionable courses of action for averting conflicts or strengthening pro-US support".

SCL also provides Target Audience Analysis for government clients around the world through the use of "non-invasive tools for collecting precise field data and psychological parameters from the most difficult to reach audience groups". 

3.) Federal/Civilian: SCL's analytics can be used to increase the effectiveness of government public information campaigns and allows the government to precisely target segments of the population through the use of digital campaigns through the use of precise target segments.  The effectiveness of these campaigns can then be measured, giving governments the ability to measure the Return on Investment for a campaign.

4.) International: SCL Group has worked in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia.  Governments in these regions have been given the ability to better understand their citizens and their frustrations and grievances, helping them to develop policies that will be acceptable to their population.

Let's look at a couple of examples of what SCL Group has done:

1.) Courses of Action for failed states in Libya: SCL was commissioned to obtain and analyze data on the social framework of Libya and related drivers of instability to inform a western government’s policy formulation, and to recommend courses of action. In total, almost 3000 Libyans were interviewed using qualitative, quantitative and narrative research techniques. Analytics on the full data set led to twenty-seven distinct recommended courses of action that spanned over a dozen sectors. The findings and recommendations enabled a whole-of-government approach to address instability. 

2.) Countering Terrorist Recruitment in the Pan-Pacific: SCL conducted pan-national data collection into extremist recruitment across the South and South East Pacific, in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories. The findings resulted in a complete redirection of the client’s strategy. Instead of targeting the recruiters, our analysis showed that targeting parents about taking responsibility for their children was far more effective.

According to The Guardian from September 2005, we find this description of SCL's appearance at the United Kingdom's Defense and Security Equipment International Arms Fair 2005 written by Lucy Mangan:

"At the Strategic Communication Laboratories order and decorum are restored. The glass-fronted room (sorry, command facility) is lined with banks of screens and staffed by people sitting at monitors with maps, data and blinking lights. They are labelled "Research", "Strategy", "Output" and "Blinking Lights" (no, not really). All that's missing is the back wall sliding away to reveal Q blowing up minions with a pen.

It turns out, however, that the theme is more Orwell than 007. SCL are in the business of information management. The stations handle demographic and social data and trend analyses so that the government may use "persuasion and influence" to achieve their ends. The strategic stations are where decisions are made and the output desks are where "the means of communication exist for what the government wants to achieve". Big Brother is not just watching you, he's listening and talking too." (my bold)

Let's close this posting with a quote from a recent interview with Julian Assange:

"There is an organization that is much more significant than Cambridge Analytica, which is the SCL Group, of which Cambridge Analytica is part. The SCL Group does a lot of work for the UK military and intelligence sector and has been involved in numerous elections over the last 20 years, they brag in 60 countries. It is partly government, partly commercial work. There is still an important question to be resolved, which is how much of the SCL Group's activities in other countries' elections are on behalf of the UK state, or otherwise subsidized in some way by the UK state, and how many are simply field service operations for political parties in those states".

I hope that this posting has provided you with background information on how your personal data is used by private companies with links to governments around the globe.  The only way to put an end to the endless data that governments are only too happy to use to manipulate us is to stop exposing our private lives for public show.  As the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story shows us, George Orwell was just slightly ahead of his time and we are playing right into the hands of "Big Brother" by using social media to communicate.  What is particularly ironic and hypocritical is the fact that governments around the world have invoked privacy legislation with the alleged intent of "protecting us" and yet, they are the ones that have this overwhelming need to know everything about us so that they can either retain or gain power over us.

....and, just in case you wondered what personal data of yours was "floating around in the ether" just waiting to be analyzed by SCL or Cambridge Analytica, simply fill out this form and provide even more of your personal information along with £10 to Cambridge Analytica to find out:

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