Cambridge Analytica received a $15 million investment from a wealthy Republican donor named Robert Mercer. The voter-profiling company had wooed Mercer and his political adviser Stephen K. Bannon with promises of tools that could “identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior.” However, the company lacked the data needed to make their products work.
The firm gathered information from the private Facebook profiles of 50 million users without permission, according to former employees of Cambridge Analytica, associates, and documents. This was one of the largest data leaks in the history of social networking.
Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit a large section of the American electorate’s social media activity to develop techniques that underpinned its work on the Donald Trump campaign in 2016.
How Cambridge Analytica Accessed 50 Million Facebook Profiles
Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, said the firm was able to gain access to the profiles through a paid survey app that promised to conduct personality predictions. The app would allow the company to obtain data from the user and their friends. They were able to gain data from over 50 million Facebook profiles in a couple months.
Wylie said Bannon wanted weapons for his culture war. He wanted to change the culture of America.
“An examination by The New York Times and The Observer of London reveals how Cambridge Analytica’s drive to bring to market a potentially powerful new weapon put the firm – and wealthy investors seeking to reshape politics – under scrutiny from investigators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Wylie helped found Cambridge Analytica and worked there until late 2014. He described the company’s leaders,
Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair. They want to fight a culture war in America. Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.
The details of the company’s acquisition and use of Facebook user data has surfaced in several accounts, since they began working on the 2016 campaign. This has set off a debate about the merits of the firm’s phychographic modeling techniques.
Until March, the full scale of the breach has not been disclosed and Facebook has not acknowledged it until recently. There have been interviews with approximately seven former employees and contractors, and a review of the company’s emails and documents. This revealed that Cambridge Analytica relied on the private data from Facebook, but the firm still possesses most, if not all, of the information.
According to Wylie, Cambridge Analytica paid to obtain the personal data through an outside researcher who, according to Facebook, claimed to be collecting the information for academic purposes.
When The New York Times was questioning Facebook, the social media site downplayed the scope of the breach and questioned if the data was still out of its control. On March 16, the company “posted a statement expressing alarm and promising to take action.”
Paul Grewal, the vice president and deputy general counsel of Facebook, told The Times, “This was a scam – and a fraud.” He said the social media network suspended Cambridge Analytica, Wylie, and Aleksandr Kogan, the researcher and Russian-American academic.
Grewal said that Facebook is willing to take whatever steps necessary to see that the data is deleted forever and will take action against all offending parties.
Trouble for Cambridge Analytica in London
The chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, and other officials from the company have denied collecting or using data from Facebook, most recently during a parliamentary hearing in February. However, it a statement to The Times, the company acknowledged that it had obtained the data. The statement blamed Kogan for violating the rules of the social media giant and claimed to have deleted the data two years ago.
In Britain, Cambridge Analytica is facing more than one investigation by “parliament and government regulators into allegations that it performed illegal work on the ‘Brexit’ campaign.” Britain has strict privacy laws, and the information commissioner announced that she was investigating to see if the information was acquired and used illegally.
According to documents from Cambridge Analytica and former employees warned Mercer’s daughter, who is a board member, Bannon, and Nix that it is illegal to employ foreigners for political campaigns.
Congressional investigators have questioned Nix concerning the company’s role in the Trump campaign. Special counsel for the Justice Department Robert S. Mueller has demanded emails between Cambridge Analytica and employees for the Trump team. This is part of the investigation into Russian interference in the election.
The New York Times has viewed documents that indicate the firm’s British affiliate worked in Russia and Ukraine. Also, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, stated in October that Nix reached out to him during the campaign, hoping to retrieve the private emails of Hillary Clinton.
The documents viewed by The Times raise new questions about Facebook. The social media platform is already grappling with criticism over the spread of fake news and Russian propaganda. The Times was also able to view some of the information collected by Cambridge Analytica and learned that the details included identities, likes, and friend networks.
Grewal said that protecting user information is the center of everything Facebook does. “No systems were infiltrated, and no passwords of sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.”
How it all Began
Nix worked at SCL Group, running the small elections division. The SCL Group is a political and defense contractor. He wanted to break into the world of political data. He recruited Wylie, who was a 24-year-old political operative with ties to veterans of the campaigns for former President Barack Obama. Wylie was interested in using inherent psychological traits to affect the behavior of the voters. He had put together a team of data scientists and psychologists. Some of them were affiliated with Cambridge University.
The group, assembled by Wylie, experimented in Africa and the Caribbean because privacy rules there are either lax or do not exist. Politicians who had employed the SCL Group where happy to provide government-held information, according to former employees.
Nix met Mercer, one of the richest men in the world, and Bannon before he worked for the Trump campaign. Mercer believed that “a sophisticated data company could make him a kingmaker in Republican politics.” His daughter Rebekah shared his conservative views. Bannon was interested in the possibilities of personal profiling to shift American culture and rewire the politics of the country, according to Wylie and other former employees.
Mercer agreed to help fund “a $1.5 million pilot project to poll voters and test psycho-graphic messaging” in the Virginia gubernatorial election in November 2013. The Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli ran against Terry McAuliffe, who was a Democratic fund-raiser. Cuccinelli lost, but Mercer was committed to the project and moving forward.
The Mercers wanted quick results and more business was knocking at the door. Investor Toby Neugebauer and other wealthy conservatives were willing to put tens of millions of dollars into a campaign that backed Senator Ted Cruz, and Nix wanted the job.
Wylie failed to write a memo explaining the project to Neugebauer, Nix chastised him in an email. But there was a larger issue facing Wylie’s team. The company did not have enough data to create psycho-graphic profiles on a national scale. Traditional firms gather information from voting records and histories of consumer purchases to predict political beliefs and voting behavior.
However, those types of records could not predict if a voter was a religious extrovert, a neurotic introvert, a follower of the occult, or a fair-minded liberal. These were the kind of traits needed to design powerful political messages.
The Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University had a solution. Researchers developed a technique that allowed them to map personality traits by what people liked on Facebook. They paid users to take a personality quiz and download an app that would take some private data from their profiles and that of their friends. At the time, Facebook allowed the activity.
Scientists said this approach would reveal more about a person that even those closest to them would know. This claim has been disputed.
The Psychometrics Centre did not want to work with the firm. However, Wylie found someone who was willing, Kogan. He was a psychology professor at that time with the university and was aware of the techniques.
Kogan built an app himself and began harvesting information for Cambridge Analytica in June 2014. According to financial records and company emails, the firm paid more that $800,000 in expenses for the app and allowed Kogan to keep a copy for his own research.
All that he told Facebook, and users in fine print, was that the information was being collected for academic purposes, according to the social media platform. Due to non-disclosure agreements, Kogan only said that his program was “a very standard vanilla Facebook app.”
The app provided more that 50 million raw profiles to Cambridge Analytica, stated Wylie. The number was confirmed through a company email and a former colleague. Among those profiles, 30 million included enough information for the company to match users and records to build psycho-graphic profiles. Only 270,000 users participated in the quiz and they were the only ones who consented to the release of data.
Wylie said: “We wanted as much [information] as we could get. Where it came from, who said we could have it – we weren’t really asking.”
However, Nix told a parliamentary committee that Kogan’s efforts were “fruitless.”
While Kogan was developing his app, Mercer invested $15 million in a joint venture with SCL’s elections division. The New York Times reported that the team developed a convoluted corporate structure to form a new American company. It was almost entirely owned by Mercer and a license to the psycho-graphics platform that Wylie’s team created. Bannon became a board member, an investor, and named the company Cambridge Analytica. The New York Times reported this information from documents owned by the firm.
The Convoluted Structure of Cambridge Analytica
The firm was incorporated in Delaware, but contracts were sent to the SCL Group in London and overseen by Nix. He is a British citizen and held dual jobs with Cambridge Analytica and SCL. The other SCL employees were either Canadian or European. Wylie is Canadian.
In July 2014, Laurence Levy, an American attorney who was advising the firm, warned the company that the arrangement could be a violation of laws limiting the involvement of foreign nationals in American elections. He stated that Nix would have to recuse himself “from substantive management” of clients working with American elections. Cambridge Analytica would also have to hire Americans or green card holders “to manage the work and decision-making functions, relative to campaign messaging and expenditures.”
The firm told The Times that all the strategic roles were filled by American personnel, and Nix was not in an operational or strategic role in an American election campaign. There was a similar issue in 2016, when the firm worked for the Cruz and Trump campaigns. More Americans worked on the elections, however, the data scientists were from the U.K. or other European countries, as reported by two former employees.
Cambridge Analytica and the Trump Campaigns
The firm performed a variety of services under the direction of Brad Parscale for Trump’s 2016 campaign and his 2020 re-election efforts. The firm designed target audiences for digital advertisements and fundraising efforts, modeled voter turnout, purchased $5 million in television ads, and determined where the president should travel to garner more support.
Nix stated that the profiles helped shape the strategy for the Trump campaign, however, other officials said the firm was unable to model Trump voters comprehensively. Nix told the BBC, in December, that the profiles came from “legacy psychographics” from the Cruz campaign.
By 2015, Wylie and a dozen of he teammates had left the firm. Most of them left because they had liberal views and Mercer preferred hard-right candidates. In a statement, Cambridge Analytica said Wylie left to start a rival company. The firm later took legal action against him for intellectual property claims. Cambridge Analytica accused Wylie and other contractors of engaging in a “malicious attempt to hurt the company.”
At the end of 2015, a report was released that stated Cambridge Analytica used data collected from private Facebook accounts for the Cruz campaign. At the time, Facebook released a statement saying they were “carefully investigating this situation and would require any company misusing its data to destroy it.”
The social media platform verified the leak, but they did not publicly acknowledge it. They worked to secure the data, and these efforts continued into August 2016. Lawyers for Facebook reached out to the contractors from the data firm. The letter said: “This data was obtained and used without permission. It cannot be used legitimately in the future and must be deleted immediately.”
Grewal said that Kogan, the SCL Group, and Cambridge Analytica certified to Facebook that the information in question had been destroyed. However, copies of the information are beyond the control of the social media platform. The Times viewed some of the raw data Cambridge Analytica obtained from the profiles.
Nix has stated that the data company does not have the information obtained from Facebook. A former employee said that he had recently seen information on the company’s servers and the files are not encrypted.
Cambridge Analytica is looking to expand business in the U.S. and overseas. Nix has mentioned some questionable behavior.
In January, undercover footage, filmed by Channel 4 News in Britain and viewed by The Times, showed Nix bragging about employing front companies and former spies on behalf of political clients around the world. He even suggested ways to entrap politicians in compromising situations.
None of the American campaigns or Super PACs have reported paying Cambridge Analytica for work in the 2018 midterm elections. It is not clear if the company will be continuing work on the Trump re-election campaign for 2020.
What Is Cambridge Analytica Doing Now?
However, this has not discouraged Nix, who is expecting to take psychographics to the commercial advertising market. A former employee reported pitching Cambridge Analytica to MetLife, the brewer AB InBev, and Mercedes-Benz. Nevertheless, as of March, none of these companies have signed on.
It is likely that Cambridge Analytica is not the only company to have harvested data from Facebook users.
The Facebook Breach
Sandy Parakilas was responsible for policing data breaches by third-party software developers during 2011-12. He told reporters that senior executives were warned that Facebook was lax were data protection was concerned and left themselves open for a major breach.
My concerns were that all of the data that left Facebook servers to developers could not be monitored by Facebook, so we had no idea what developers were doing with the data.
According to Parakilas, Facebook has terms of service in settings, but people did not read or did not understand the terms. The company also failed to use enforcement mechanisms, including the audits of outside developers, to ensure personal information was not being misused.
He was asked what kind of control the social media network had of the data obtained from third-party developers. He responded: “Zero. Absolutely none. Once the data left Facebook servers there was not any control, and there was no insight into what was going on.” Parakilas believed that there was a black market for data given to outside developers. When he expressed his concerns to other executives, he suggested the company “audit developers directly and see what’s going on with the data,” but he was discouraged from the approach.
Parakilas was actually advised against looking deeply into how the data was being used by an executive. He was asked, “Do you really want to see what you’ll find?” He interpreted the comment to mean: “Facebook was in a stronger legal position if it didn’t know about the abuse that was happening.” He was both shocked and horrified by the idea.
It was December 2017, when Parakilas first went public with his privacy concerns at Facebook. The feature that allowed data harvesters to obtain the profile information of friends who used apps on the social media platform was originally designed for third-party software developers who had permission to build games and quizzes from Facebook. The feature was called “Friends Permission,” and it was created in 2007. The feature was terminated in 2014, however, by that time possibly hundreds of thousands of developers may have harvested data from individual profiles.
Facebook now has more strict protocols that guard what third parties are allowed access to. The social media network announced on March 19, 2018, that it hired a digital forensics company to audit Cambridge Analytica. It has been two years since Facebook was aware of the breach by the data firm.
The social media platform wanted more developers to build apps for Facebook. The easiest way was to offer developers access to information. When Parakilas first started with the company, he was told that banning an app required personal approval from Mark Zuckerberg.
The personality test, created by Kogan, downloaded the data of the friends who took the test. Kogan’s app attracted 270,000 interested people, who were paid to take the personality quiz and according to Parakilas, it was one of the last apps to be able to take advantage of the Friends Permission feature.
It is likely that tens of thousands of apps harvested user information from Facebook. The feature was discontinued in 2014. The Friends Permission feature was exploited by Global Science Research, which gave the information to Cambridge Analytica.
The company denies knowing the data was obtained unethically and Kogan maintains that he had a “close working relationship with Facebook” and did nothing illegal.
John Bolton and His Super PAC
The John Bolton Super PAC was one of Cambridge Analytica’s first customers in August 2014. He hired the company to develop psychological profiles of voters. Bolton is Trump’s national security adviser.
Over a two-year period, the super PAC spent $1.2 million on survey research. This is a term political campaigns use for polling, according to campaign finance records. The New York Times read the contract between Bolton and the data mining company and the services procured are described as “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.” According to documents and two former employees that was done using Facebook profiles.
Wylie says the super PAC knew how Cambridge Analytica obtained the data, it was discussed extensively in meetings and conference calls.
The psychographic modeling techniques were partially created from the data gained from Facebook. This underpinned the work done for the Trump campaign in 2016 and created a furious and unsettled debate about whether the technology actually worked.
According to Wylie,
The Bolton PAC was obsessed with how America was becoming limp wristed and spineless and it wanted research and messaging for national security issues.
This meant making people militaristic in their worldview, but that is what the super PAC wanted.
Cambridge Analytica used the psychographic models to design the advertising concepts for Bolton’s political clients. This included the Republican Senator Thom Tillis.
One advertisement, on YouTube, was aimed at people who scored high for conscientiousness and believed to respect experience and hard work. The ad emphasized the time Bolton worked for former President Ronald Reagan and how Tillis “embodied the spirit and political ethos” of Reagan.
The company combined the psycho-graphic profiles from Facebook with other data and voter databases.
By Jeanette Smith
The New York Times: How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions
MSN: ‘Utterly horrifying’: ex-Facebook insider says covert data harvesting was routine
The New York Times: Bolton Was Early Beneficiary of Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook Data
Image Courtesy of Antonio Roberts’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License