The University of Mississippi has officially ended its business partnership with scrutinized data firm Big Data Dolphins and insurance firm Eldon Insurance Co., but Erica McKinley, the university’s chief legal officer and general counsel, did not agree to cooperate with the United Kingdom Information Commissioner’s Office’s investigation into the firms.
The firms, which were supposed to be established on campus this fall at the university’s business incubator, Insight Park, are under investigation by the ICO for allegedly sending U.K. citizens’ personal data to the university.
Since the allegations surfaced, the university has terminated its lease agreements with the firms.
“After a thorough internal review, the university has confirmed that no personally identifiable information of any U.K. citizen was transferred to the University of Mississippi,” Vice Chancellor for strategic communications and marketing Jim Zook said. “The lease agreement was terminated by mutual agreement of the parties.”
Emails show that McKinley had a telephone conference with ICO officials on July 12, in which she agreed to hear the claims from the ICO but declined to concede to assertions made in June that the university could be holding information relevant to the investigation.
“I explained that in agreeing to hear your recitation, the University of Mississippi did not consent to the jurisdiction of the ICO, concede the factual assertions made in your June 12, 2018, correspondence (to Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter), waive any applicable defenses or immunities, nor otherwise agree to cooperate with your investigation in any way,” McKinley wrote on June 25, ahead of the conference call. “Respectfully, the university is a neutral third-party, and our position on the above matter has not changed.”
The day following the conference call, July 13, the ICO sent an email to McKinley which said, “We have no further enquiries of the university at this time.”
Neither McKinley nor University Communications could be reached to further clarify why the university did not agree to cooperate with the investigation.
The investigation involving the university began when former Cambridge Analytica business development director Brittany Kaiser testified in the British House of Commons on April 17 that two business executives, Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, started the data company to create their own version of Cambridge Analytica.
“Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore have told multiple individuals that they took my proposal and copied it and they created their own Cambridge Analytica, which they called Big Data Dolphins in partnership with the data science department at the University of Mississippi,” Kaiser said.
Cambridge Analytica is a company that was accused of illegally harvesting Facebook users’ data and using the data to influence political elections. The ICO recently fined Facebook more than $600,000 for failing to protect users’ data from third-party groups like Cambridge Analytica.
The ICO sent a letter to Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter on June 12 informing him to preserve information and data about Big Data Dolphins and Eldon Insurance, which was initially expected to be an artificial intelligence and insurance project to develop at the university’s business incubator, Insight Park.
“Evidence has come to light which suggest that there may well be information that the University of Mississippi holds which is of relevance to my Office’s investigation,” the letter said. “Specifically, this relates to the transfer and analysis of personal information from a U.K. company — ‘Big Data Dolphins’ — to the United States, and further, that the personal information in question from the U.K. may have been passed to the University of Mississippi and/or to academics working there for analysis.”
However, the letter also said the department’s inquiry is not targeted at the university but only aims to “understand the scope of Big Data Dolphins’ activities.”
In a written statement to The Daily Mississippian on Sept. 10, Steve Doohan, lead communications officer for the ICO, said the line of inquiry with the university is ongoing and the ICO is continuing to “liaise with senior officials at the university” about the investigation.