Cambridge Analytica is a data analysis firm that claims to have a trove of data points about the personal preferences of millions of Americans. The firm helped Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and has now been suspended from Facebook.
Special prosecutor Robert Mueller previously requested documents from the company as part of his investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, previously tweeted that he was contacted by the company about Hillary Clinton’s emails. In short, Cambridge Analytica has found itself the subject of growing controversy. The company also has ties to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, former White House adviser Steve Bannon, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and mega GOP/Trump donor Robert Mercer.
The Facebook suspension derives from the use of an app “thisisyourdigitallife” to obtain personal information of 270,000 people and their friends. Essentially, the firm mined Facebook to collect data on Americans, analyzing the data points to create personality and political profiles that politicians and others use to better tailor messaging.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Company Spent $800,000 to Create an App to Gather Personality Profiles & Used Those to Gain Personal Information on 30 Million Other Facebook Users Without Consent
Christopher Wylie, the 28-year-old Canadian whistleblower who spoke to The New York Times and The Guardian, said he helped build the system that created psychological and political profiles of millions of Facebook users in the U.S. and the UK. Those profiles were then used to help President Donald Trump get elected and for Brexit to be successful, according to Wylie, who helped start the company four years ago.
He told The Guardian he built, “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindf*ck tool.”
According to The New York Times, Cambridge Analytica spent $800,000 for Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic, to build an app and harvest data from Facebook users.
Kogan created a personality quiz and Cambridge Analytica paid for people to take it by advertising on platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, according To The Guardian. Those people who took the quiz gave consent for their information to be shared, but the app also extracted data from the Facebook user’s friends, without their consent and without them knowing. That is how the company was able to gather data from 30 million Facebook users.
Wylie told The Times that the personal data was the “saving grace” that allowed the firm to build psychological profiles.
“We wanted as much as we could get,” he told the newspaper. “Where it came from, who said we could have it — we weren’t really asking.”
Wyile told ITN Channel 4 News, “So by you filling out my survey I capture 300 records on average right,” Wylie told ITN Channel 4 News. “And so that means that, all of a sudden, I only need to engage 50,000, 70,000, 100,000 people to get a really big data set really quickly, and it’s scaled really quickly. We were able to get upwards of 50 million plus Facebook records in the span of a couple of months.”
He added, “Steve wanted weapons for his culture war, that’s what he wanted. We offered him a way to accomplish what he wanted to do, which was change the culture of America.”
Facebook wrote in a statement on March 16, 2018, that it was “Suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from Facebook.” Cambridge Analytica uses “psychographic” data, meaning it uses data points culled from the internet to create personality profiles of people to use for targeted purposes, such as in an election. The Facebook statement was signed by Paul Grewal, VP & Deputy General Counsel.
“We are suspending Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), including their political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, from Facebook. Given the public prominence of this organization, we want to take a moment to explain how we came to this decision and why,” the statement read. The statement reads in part:
Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe. He also passed that data to Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc.
Like all app developers, Kogan requested and gained access to information from people after they chose to download his app. His app, “thisisyourdigitallife,” offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists.” Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app. In so doing, they gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.
Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules. By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.
Breaking the Rules Leads to Suspension
Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made. We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information.
The company’s website says that “CA Political will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign. We offer a proven combination of predictive analytics, behavioral sciences, and data-driven ad tech.”
It claims the company has accumulated a treasure trove of data. “With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.” Services provided include polling, predictive analytics, list building, and event promotion.
In a statement, Cambridge Analytica responded to the Facebook statement by saying:
Cambridge Analytica fully complies with Facebook’s terms of service and is currently in touch with Facebook following its recent statement that it had suspended the company from its platform, in order to resolve this matter as quickly as possible.
Cambridge Analytica’s Commercial and Political divisions use social media platforms for outward marketing, delivering data-led and creative content to targeted audiences. They do not use or hold data from Facebook profiles.
In 2014, we contracted a company led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally-renowned institution to undertake a large scale research project in the United States.
This company, Global Science Research (GSR), was contractually committed by us to only obtain data in accordance with the UK Data Protection Act and to seek the informed consent of each respondent. GSR was also contractually the Data Controller (as per Section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act) for any collected data. GSR obtained Facebook data via an API provided by Facebook.
When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, Cambridge Analytica deleted all data received from GSR.
We worked with Facebook over this period to ensure that they were satisfied that we had not knowingly breached any of Facebook’s terms of service and also provided a signed statement to confirm that all Facebook data and their derivatives had been deleted.
No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.
Cambridge Analytica only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly. Our robust data protection policies comply with US, international, European Union, and national regulations.
In December 2017, two House Democrats asked House Republicans to subpoena Cambridge Analytica and another data firm. Jerrold Nadler, ranking member of the House Committee on the Judiciary, and Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, signed the letter. They sent the letter to Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary requesting that subpoenas be sent to the firms Cambridge Analytica and Giles-Parscale.
The letter says that Cummings and Conyers sent a letter to five data consultants to the 2017 presidential campaign, including Cambridge Analytica “requesting documents relating to their possible engagement with foreign actors such as WikiLeaks, communication with foreign governments, and use of misappropriated data.” Three of the companies denied “any foreign contacts whatsoever and declined to produce any documents.”
According to the letter, “Cambridge Analytica refused to respond to our inquiry and thus ddi that the company had contacts and communications with foreign governments or foreign actors. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange confirmed that Cambridge Analytica approached WikiLeaks during the campaign to coordinate the release of Clinton’s missing emails. Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, also confirmed this attempted outreach. The letter stated the investigation was critical to learn more about high-level Trump campaign officials alleged contacts with WikiLeaks.
2. Cambridge Analytica Has Ties to Mega Trump Donor Robert Mercer
According to Mother Jones, the firm is “partially owned by Trump mega-donor Robert Mercer and the place where former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon once served as vice president.” During the presidential election, “Cambridge Analytica’s work for the Trump campaign was overseen by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior advisor,” Raw Story reports. Vox reports that Cambridge Analytica is “a company created by Robert Mercer, a billionaire patron of right-wing outlets like Breitbart News.”
The Guardian also reported on the Robert Mercer connection, alleging that “he is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group.” According to The Guardian, “When Robert Mercer started supporting Trump, Cambridge Analytica came too. And where Mercer’s money is, Steve Bannon is usually close by: it was reported that until recently he had a seat on the board.”
Robert Mercer and the powerful Mercer family have become forces to reckon with in the background of Republican politics and are considered instrumental players in the election of President Donald Trump. Rebekah Mercer, one of hedge fund financier Robert Mercer’s three daughters with his wife, Diana, was thrust into the controversy surrounding the new Michael Wolff book on Donald Trump. Called “Fire and Fury,” it presents a series of incendiary allegations against the president, mostly in the form of negative comments that people close to him supposedly made to the author. Among them: The President’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, who was plucked by the president from the conservative Breitbart website, which the Mercers back.
The Mercer family were key financiers of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. According to The Washington Post, “the Mercers have given at least $36.6 million to GOP candidates and super PACs since 2010.” Rebekah Mercer was tapped for the president’s transition team. Robert Mercer made his billions in hedge funds. “Politically conservative, Mercer has become one of the Republican party’s biggest contributors, spending $25 million in the 2016 campaign and backing Trump,” Forbes Magazine has reported. He is listed as age 71, self-made, married with three children, and living in Mount Sinai, New York.
In February 2017, Breitbart’s CEO Larry Solov confirmed that the Mercer family was co-owners of Breitbart. “The company’s owners are himself, Susie Breitbart (the widow of founder Andrew Breitbart) and the Mercer family,” Buzzfeed reported. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Mercer family “bought nearly 50% of Breitbart News for $10 million in 2011.”
According to Forbes Magazine, Robert Mercer is a “Former IBM language recognition specialist” who “joined Renaissance Technologies in 1993. Took over as co-CEO of the successful quantitative hedge fund firm in 2011 when Renaissance founder James Simons retired.”
Robert Mercer is a libertarian who detests the Republican establishment, according to a profile in The New Yorker. He was also described as being prone to believing Clinton conspiracy theories and heatedly denying being a white supremacist. According to the New Yorker, Rebekah Mercer urged the ultimately failed appointment of Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security advisor.
3. Massachusetts’ Attorney General Has Launched an Investigation Into the Firm & Authorities Are Also Looking Into Whether the Firm Violated U.S. Election Law by Employing Foreigners
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said Saturday that her office has launched an investigation into Cambridge Analytica.
“Massachusetts residents deserve answers immediately from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. We are launching an investigation,” Healey wrote on Twitter.
Cambridge Analytica is already under investigation by both in the United States and in the UK, with special counsel Robert Mueller looking into the firm in the U.S. and the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office exploring its role in Brexit in Britain, according to The Guardian.
The company possibly violated U.S. election law by hiring non-American citizens to work on American election campaigns, The Guardian reports. The newspaper obtained a memo sent by a lawyer to Steve Bannon, Rebekah Mercer and Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix warning about the law.
“Any decision maker must be a US citizen or green card holder,” the memo said. “To the extent you are aware of foreign nationals providing services, including polling and marketing, it would appear that unless it is being done through US citizens, or foreign nationals with green cards, the activity would violate the law. The prohibition against foreign nationals managing campaigns, including making direct or indirect decisions regarding the expenditure of campaign dollars, will have a significant impact on how Cambridge hires staff and operates in the short term.”
Nix is British and another key staff member, Christopher Wylie, is Canadian.
“In order for Cambridge to engage in such activities, Mr Nix would first have to be recused from substantive management of any such clients involved in US elections,” the memo explained, according to The Guardian.
Employees told The Guardian that the company ignored the warning.
“One colleague kept raising these issues, so they gave us a piece of paper to give to immigration to say we weren’t actually working,” a former employee told the newspaper. “It was getting a chance to travel, and to work on campaigns. Having a lot of autonomy, an adventure. When you are young and get that sort of opportunity, you take it rather than thinking about the details or consequences.”
But Cambridge Analytica denied any wrongdoing by Nix or other foreign employees.
“He has never had a strategic or operational role on any election campaigns undertaken in the US. All CA personnel in strategic roles were US nationals or green card holders and these strategic roles provided all direction to non-strategic personnel,” the firm told The Guardian.
4. A U.S. Professor Filed a Claim Against Cambridge Analytica in a British Court
A professor in the United States named David Carroll has filed a court action in Great Britain over privacy concerns that could lead to Cambridge Analytica having to reveal more details about its operations, according to a lengthy article on Carroll’s actions in Mother Jones.
Carroll is a professor of media at New York’s Parsons School of Design. After the 2016 presidential election, he heard that Cambridge Analytica may have been set up in the UK to process the personal data of Americans. He decided to use British privacy laws to find out what the firm had on him. According to Mother Jones, the professor requested his own personal data from Cambridge Analytica and received back a detailed list predicting his political leanings.
The professor later released the company’s data on him on Twitter. “People were kind of terrified that this information was accurate,” Carroll told Mother Jones, which added that he and others have started a legal fight against the company in England. “People had a visceral reaction that their voter files aren’t being protected like they ought to be.”
5. Assange Says He Was Contacted by Cambridge Analytica About Hillary Clinton’s Emails & Robert Mueller Has Asked for Company Emails
Julian Assange tweeted previously that WikiLeaks was contacted by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential election.
“Special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly requested all emails from employees at the firm who worked with the Trump campaign, and Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix also reportedly interviewed with the House Intelligence Committee,” The Hill reported.
Assange tweeted “that he could confirm that he was contacted by Nix prior to November 2016 and that Nix’s request was declined. It was reported that Nix was interested in obtaining the 33,000 emails deleted from Clinton’s private server used during her time leading the State Department,” according to the Hill, which added that “Nix was reported earlier this year to have been in contact with top Trump donor Rebekah Mercer about better organizing emails being released by WikiLeaks.”
According to Vox, the firm also has ties to Michael Flynn, the disgraced National Security Adviser for Trump. He disclosed “a brief advisory role with a firm related to a controversial data analysis company that aided the Trump campaign,” which was identified as Cambridge Analytica, Vox reports.
Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing, telling Vox, “CA is not under investigation, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the company.”
Hillary Clinton brought up Cambridge Analytica in some of her many comments after losing the 2016 election. Speaking at a coding convention, Clinton criticized the Democrats’ data operations, saying, “So I set up my own campaign, and we have our own data operation. I get the nomination. So I’m now the nominee of the Democratic Party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party. I mean, it was bankrupt. It was on the verge of insolvency. Its data was mediocre to poor, non-existent, wrong. I had to inject money into it. The DNC to keep it going.”
She then segued to Trump’s efforts and mentioned Cambridge Analytica. “OK. Donald Trump, who did nothing about really setting up any kind of data operation inherits an RNC data foundation, that after the Republicans lost in 2012, and they thought they had a very good operation with the set up that Romney did, called Orca, they thought that was really state of the art, they lose. So they raised best estimates are close to $100 million. They brought in their main vendors. They basically said we will never be behind the Democrats again. And they invested between 2012 and 2016 $100 million to build this data foundation. They beta tested it. They ran it.”
She said “about 227,000 surveys” were sent out “to double triple and quadruple check the information.”
“So Trump becomes the nominee, and he is basically handed this tried and true effective, foundation. Then you’ve got Cambridge Analytica, and you know, you can believe the hype on how great they were or the hype on how they weren’t, the fact is they added something, and I think again we better understand that. The Mercers did not invest all that money just for their own amusement. We know they played in Brexit. And we know that they came to Jared Kushner and they basically said we will marry our operation which was more as it’s been described psychographic, sentiment, a lot of harvesting of Facebook information. We will marry that with the RNC. On two conditions, you pick Steve Bannon and you pick Keyllanne Conway. And then we’re in.”