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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Scandal-hit data firm focuses attention on military

Founder of SCL Group says ground-breaking research will no longer be used for elections

Nigel Oakes called for the regulation of data use "just as you regulate gun sales". 
Nigel Oakes called for the regulation of data use "just as you regulate gun sales". 

Ground-breaking research into human behaviour that underpinned the rise of disgraced data firm Cambridge Analytica will no longer be used to influence the outcome of elections, according to a senior executive.

Nigel Oakes, the founder and chief executive of parent company SCL, said in an interview that his techniques were being used by western militaries for counter-terrorism work but would be restricted from use for commercial clients and elections.

Under his charge, Mr Oakes used research starting from the late 1980s to drive work in psychological operations and targeted political work that he claimed resulted in some nine election victories in campaigns around the world.

The work was expanded and refined by former business partner Alexander Nix, whose firm Cambridge Analytica closed earlier this year amid scandal over the use of the data of millions of Facebook users and an undercover sting in which Mr Nix was caught boasting of about dirty tricks campaigns and influence peddling.

A damning report released last month by British lawmakers accused SCL of the “alleged undermining of democracies in many countries, by the active manipulation of the facts and events” and called for a police investigation into the company. Cambridge Analytica used ‘micro-targeting’ with online messages playing on the fears of voters.

The report said that SCL had previously used specialist techniques developed by the military to “combat terror organisations and to disrupt enemy intelligence”.

Mr Oakes said his work would continue to be used by western militaries and called for government regulation of data use “just as you regulate gun sales”.

“In truth, we have restricted it so can’t be used for commercial clients,” Mr Oakes told industry podcast the Truth Trade. “It cannot be used for elections, it can only be used in the defence space and primarily for counter-terrorism.

“The American military have realised that force is maybe the final resort but certainly not a good way to achieve your ends and have lasting peace.

“And they’ve realised that understanding foreign audiences and working out what a win-win situation for both sides is a much better alternative than fighting but they need to understand those audiences to be able to do that.”

Mr Oakes describes himself as a British political scientist whose ideas laid the foundation for “many significant developments both in military influence and population analysis,” according to his LinkedIn page.

Mr Oakes, who went to the elite English school Eton College, had previously worked at a public relations firm before setting up his own research centre examining how human behaviour could be influenced. He said he used those techniques to convince investors to re-finance the reinsurance company Lloyds of London in the 1990s after a financial scandal and a series of disasters left it with multi-billion-pound losses.

He has worked on political campaigns in Asia, including post financial crisis-hit Indonesia, and in African democracies. He was registered earlier this year as being resident in the UAE, but his operations have returned to the UK, according to company registration documents.