A strategic communications company caught up in the controversy over alleged breaches of Facebook users’ privacy had security clearance to view secret UK information, it has been disclosed.
Details of SCL Group’s work for UK Government departments was revealed in documents released by the parliamentary inquiry into fake news.
A 122-page dossier provided by whistleblower Christopher Wylie shows how SCL provided training to Ministry of Defence psychological operations experts and also conducted a behavioural study in Pakistan for the Foreign Office.
After the Pakistan project, which produced recommendations for public awareness campaigns to tackle violent jihadism, one Foreign Office official described the company as “a joy to work with”.
The papers were handed over to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee by Mr Wylie, who has made a series of allegations about the work of SCL and its sister company Cambridge Analytica (CA).
Mr Wylie’s allegations revolve around CA’s supposed use of Facebook users’ personal data to target campaign messages for Donald Trump during the US presidential election.
But while the dossier includes details of SCL’s involvement in elections around the world, its work for the MoD and Foreign Office was far removed from political contests.
The 2008 study in Pakistan involved a six-month analysis of potential audiences for violent extremists, developing recommendations for communications to encourage behavioural change.
In a reference, an official from the Foreign Office’s counter-terrorism prevention unit said: “In a difficult operating environment they were the only
contractor to deliver actionable recommendations, which impacted on policy in the near term and the FCO’s strategic direction in country.
“I wouldn’t only recommend them, I’d work with them again in an instant.”
Meanwhile a letter from the tri-service 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group in 2012 said that SCL had been chosen by competitive tender to provide “measurement of effect” training to defence scientists and senior soldiers.
The letter noted that SCL were cleared for “routine access of UK secret information” and were able to work on a case study relating to current operations in Helmand province in Afghanistan.
SCL later provided further support in operations in Libya and Afghanistan, it said, adding that there were “few, if any, other commercial organisations that can deliver proven training and education of this very specialist nature”.
The documents released also include an agreement signed by SCL and Global Science Research, the company set up by Cambridge-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, who is alleged to have developed an app to gather Facebook data.
The agreement, dated 2014, gives SCL access to GSR data and suggests that Kogan’s company is expected to deliver a minimum of two million matched records of individuals in 11 US states.
The documents claim that GSR’s psychometric profiling of Facebook “likes” can be more accurate than close friends or family in assessing users’ personalities, including political party preference.
The method allows the company to create “robust personality psychology profiles on a scale that reaches into the millions”, the documents say.