The story broke on Saturday morning that London-based company Cambridge Analytica illegitimately collected the data of 50 million Facebook users, kept it despite claiming not to, and used it to increase support for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Christopher Wylie, the whistleblowing former research director for the company, alleged that Cambridge Analytica grabbed data on Facebook users and their friends without their permission via a personality test app. This data was then allegedly used to build profiles of behaviour and deliver highly targeted advertisements to influence opinion on the Trump campaign.
Since these revelations, the story has exploded, triggering speculation about the exact nature of Cambridge analytics work, Facebook’s complicity and the state of data protection on social media.
Here are some of the most important details we know so far:
Cambridge Analytica doesn’t just deal in data
It seems that Cambridge Analytica offers more services than psychological profiling and political advertising. An undercover report by Channel 4 News, broadcast last night, shows chief executive Alexander Nix offering to orchestrate incriminating situations for a client’s political opponent.
In a meeting in a London restaurant, Nix suggested a variety of services that his firm could provide to Channel 4’s fixer, who was posing as a wealthy Sri Lankan looking to influence elections in the country.
These included setting up and covertly filming meetings where, for example, campaign funds are exchanged for land and therefore “instantly having evidence of corruption”.
He also floats the idea of sending “some girls around to the candidate’s house”, saying that Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful, I find that works very well”.
Mark Turnbull, the managing director of CA Political Global (an arm of Cambridge Analytica), was also at the meeting and discussed how the company would subtly disseminate the incriminating information via social media.
He said: “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then watch it grow, give it a little push now and then.”
Nix adds: “It sounds a dreadful thing to say but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they’re believed.”
The full Channel 4 report can be seen here:
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Cambridge Analytica may have influenced more than 200 elections around the world
In the same meeting, Nix boasted “We are not only the largest and most significant political consultancy in the world but we have the most established track record. We need to operate through different vehicles, in the shadows.”
Nix and his colleagues suggested that this “track record” consisted of influencing more than 200 elections, including in Mexico, Malaysia and Brazil. They also claimed to have secretly overseen both the 2013 and 2017 presidential campaigns for the Kenyan incumbent candidate Kenyatta. Kenyatta won a rerun election last October with 98% of the vote
Cambridge Analytica continues to claim it has done nothing wrong
BBC Two’s Newsnight broadcast an interview with Cambridge Analytica CEO Nix last night, after Channel 4’s report had already aired.
Speaking to Emily Maitlis, Nix appeared contrite but denied that his firm provides the services discussed in the undercover report.
He said: “I have a huge amount of regrets about the fact we about the fact we maybe undertook this meeting and spoke with a certain amount of hyperbole about some of the things we do.”
“But what we were trying to do was illicit from the undercover reporter the true intentions of the meeting.”
The tone was somewhat different in the statement issued by Cambridge Analytica to CNN last night, which essentially accuses Channel 4 of conducting its own “honeytrap”. It said the report was “edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business”.
The statement claimed that Nix and colleagues were merely humouring the reporter with Nix saying: “We entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios.”
He added: “I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case. I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honeytraps’, and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose.”
The story is very bad news for Facebook
A University of Cambridge professor, Aleksandr Kogan, accessed the Facebook data used by Cambridge Analytica by creating a survey on an app linked with the social network. Facebook then gave Kogan the data of anyone who took the survey, as well as their friends’ data. This dataset, which consisted of information on more than 50 million Facebook users, then went to Cambridge Analytica.
The ease with which this data was obtained, the lack of user awareness, and suggestions that Facebook did nothing substantial to ensure Cambridge Analytica deleted the data when it was found that Kogan had passed it on, have all raised questions for the social media giant.
Serious questions are now being asked about Facebook’s commitment to privacy and data protection, the amount of outside regulation it should be subject to, and its fundamental business model of allowing advertisers to capitalise on user information.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been silent on the issue and trust in the company is plummeting, with share prices tumbling.
There will likely be more revelations to come
Cambridge Analytica’s tribulations are far from over. As much as the story has evolved in the past few days – from massive amounts of data used and abused for political ends to allegations of almost comically shady black ops services – it is likely to continue to grow.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has confirmed that it is examining Cambridge Analytica and its acquisition of data, as well as its parent company SCL and Dr Aleksandr Kogan.
Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said the ICO would “invoke all our powers” in the probe, and is seeking a court-issued warrant to gain access to Cambridge Analytica’s servers.
“We need to get in there, we need to look at the databases, we need to look at the servers and understand how data was processed or deleted by Cambridge Analytica,” Denham said.
The second part of Channel 4’s undercover operation will be broadcast tonight, in which it is anticipated that Alexander Nix talks about how Cambridge Analytica shaped the Trump campaign.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been asked to appear before MPs to explain how Facebook acquires user data. The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee requested that Zuckerberg give evidence in their Fake News Inquiry.
“It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an
accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process.”
“Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to “fixing” Facebook, I hope that this representative
will be you.”
It remains to be seen whether Zuckerberg will heed the call.