Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting firm which uses data collection and analysis to provide strategic planning for elections. In a scandal exposed by the New York Times and The Observer of London on March 17, the data analytics firm obtained private information from over 50 million Facebook users, which they used to influence votes. There are currently investigations into how their work may have affected the Leave EU referendum in Britain and the 2016 US presidential election. There has been talk about the legitimacy of Cambridge’s operations since they started working on Donald Trump’s campaign in August 2016, but the full scale of the data leak has only just been disclosed.
These news outlets received their information former employees, associates, and documents.
In early 2014, Cambridge obtained private information from millions of Facebook profiles in one of the largest data leaks in the social media network’s history. Only a small fraction of these users had agreed to release their information to a third party. Facebook found out about this by late 2015 but failed to alert its users, taking only limited steps to recover and secure the information. This lack of disclosure could violate laws in Britain and many American states.
The New York Times reports that copies of the users’ data can still be found online, which their reporting team had seen.
This data was collected via an app called “This Is Your Digital Life”, which paid users to take a personality quiz with the claim that they could reveal more about a person than even their parents or partner. This app was developed by Global Science Research (GSR), a company created by Russian-American academic Aleksandr Kogan. Users agreed to have their information collected for academic purposes, for a total of about hundreds of millions. However, the app also collected information from friends, who had not agreed to be involved in this, increasing their profile collection to tens of millions.
Cambridge wanted to develop a tool which would identify the personalities of American voters and predict behaviour, to influence votes using personalized political advertisements. This is called psychographic modeling. However, data was needed for this purpose, which is how Kogan became involved.
At the time, 50M was about a third of active accounts in North America, accounting for almost a quarter of potential US voters.
Trump’s campaign aides are now saying they had misgivings about Cambridge since the beginning, including then campaign chairman Paul Manafort, despite deciding to hire them as a solution for the digital operation of the election.
It took several failed attempts before the campaign team agreed to hire them.
Top Cambridge officials are now claiming credit for Trump’s victory, which only increases the suspicion they are facing. Alex Tayler, CA’s Chief Data Officer, said on Channel 4 News: “When you think about the fact that Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, but won the Electoral College, that’s down to the data and the research…That’s how he won the election.”
Brad Parscale, digital director for the campaign, is calling Cambridge’s comments “an overblown sales pitch”. However, at the time he gave them credit for “provid[ing] a fulltime employee that could sit next to [him] all day” to help process the data.
Who was the whistleblower?
Christopher Wylie is a Canada data analytics expert who was a Cambridge employee at the time of the breach. In late 2014, he left Cambridge for Eunoia Technologies, a company he had set up himself.
He came forward to say, “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And build models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
A letter he received from Facebook’s lawyers in August 2016, two years after the data was obtained, contained a request to destroy any data that had collected: “Because this data was obtained and used without permission, and because GS was not authorized to share or sell it to you, it cannot be used legitimately in the future and must be deleted immediately.”
Wylie said, “That to me was the most astonishing thing. They waited two years and did absolutely nothing to check that the data was deleted. All they asked me to do was tick a box on a form and post it back.”
What is Cambridge Analytica saying?
Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix and other officials denied responsibility during a parliamentary hearing on fake news last month, saying, “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.” In a statement to the New York Times, they acknowledged they had acquired the information, but that they deleted it two years ago, blaming Kogan for violating the rules. Their contract with GSR said that Kogan would obtain informed consent, and they believed he would do so.
A spokesman said GSR was “led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally renowned institution who made explicit contractual commitments to us regarding its legal authority to license data to SCL Elections.”
SCL Elections is an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica.
What is Facebook saying?
Facebook has already been under scrutiny regarding the spread of fake news, and now with regards to how it protects user data.
Their immediate response was to suspend whistleblower Christopher Wylie from the platform, and threaten to sue The Observer for publishing this story, saying it was making “false and defamatory” allegations.
Following the reveal, Facebook adamantly denied that this was a breach. Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook executive, tweeted, “This was unequivocally not a data breach… no systems were infiltrated, no passwords or information were stolen or hacked.” He said the fault was Kogan’s for failing to abide by Facebook’s rules regarding information sharing.
While Kogan claimed to be collecting the data for academic purposes, Facebook did not verify this claim.
In a statement on March 16, Facebook promised to take action. They also suspended the accounts of Cambridge Analytica, Kogan, and Wylie.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke for the first time a week later. In an interview with CNN, he agreed to answer calls to testify, saying, “What we try to do is send the person at Facebook who will have the most knowledge…if that’s me, then I am happy to go.”
Stephen K. Bannon: former board member of Cambridge Analytica. He became CEO of Trump’s campaign team in August 2016, bringing CA to the table.
Aleksandr Kogan: Russian-American academic who set up Global Science Research (GSR) to harvest the data.
Robert Mercer: hedge fund billionaire who invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica.
Alexander Nix: CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He set up CA to work in the US with an investment from Mercer.
Currently, the British Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating whether the data was “illegally acquired and used”. The Electoral Commission is also investigating Cambridge’s role in the Leave EU referendum.
Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller has demanded emails of those Cambridge employees who worked for Trump’s campaign team. He is currently leading the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 American election.
I will leave you with a question to ponder, about which I have yet to come to a conclusion: where do we draw the line between acceptable persuasion and unreasonable manipulation? Who’s to say?