Investigations by Channel 4 News, the Guardian, the New York Times and others have led to allegations of wrongdoing against Cambridge Analytica, as well as the social media giant Facebook.
What has Cambridge Analytica actually been accused of? And why should you care?
What is Cambridge Analytica?
The firm is a pioneer in “behavioural microtargeting” – using online data to build up a sophisticated psychological profile of voters, then targeting those individuals with bespoke messages.
Cambridge Analytica describes itself as a “non-partisan organisation” whose “client network includes governments and NGOs [non-governmental organisations], commercial entities big and small, and political clients across the ideological spectrum.”
What are the Trump connections?
On Tuesday, Channel 4 News broadcast claims about the extent of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Donald Trump’s successful election campaign. Speaking to our undercover reporter, the company’s CEO, Alexander Nix (now suspended), said:
“We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy.”
The links to the White House go further: Steve Bannon was vice president of the company until 2016, when he left to become head of the Trump campaign.
Billionaire Robert Mercer, who had already invested millions in Cambridge Analytica, injected a huge amount of cash into Trump’s campaign in 2016. His daughter Rebekah was on the board.
SCL Group, a company which has been linked to Cambridge Analytica, said it had signed an agreement with Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn about possible advisory work a week before the presidential election in November, 2016, but said it never actually hired Flynn.
What has Cambridge Analytica been up to?
A former Cambridge Analytica contractor, Christopher Wylie, said this week that the company retrieved data from 50 million Facebook profiles belonging to US voters.
Wylie told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
The original source of the data was Dr Aleksandr Kogan, an academic in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.
Dr Kogan built an app called thisisyourdigitallife, which, through his company Global Science Research, asked hundreds of thousands of users to take a personality test. The users also permitted the app to access data from their Facebook profiles. SCL funded the project.
That gave the researchers two sets of data on each user: one showing their answers to a personality quiz, and the other showing their Facebook ‘likes’ and behaviours. Matching those two bits of information could allow marketing or political advertisers to target Facebook users much more effectively, based on what they now knew about their personalities.
What other countries did Cambridge Analytica operate in?
Mr Nix and Mr Turnbull boasted that Cambridge Analytica and the linked company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) had worked in more than 200 elections across the world, including Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina.
They told our undercover reporter that the company had worked with the Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta on his campaign for re-election in 2017.
The election was marked by misinformation and fake news – one survey found that 90 per cent of Kenyans saying they’d encountered false stories about the election.
Cambridge Analytica deny any involvement with videos smearing President Kenyatta’s rivals, which went viral during the campaign – or any role with negative political campaigning there.
Speaking to our undercover reporter, Mr Turnbull said that the company had run the Kenyatta campaign in 2013 and 2017, during which time they had “rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys […] then we’d write all the speeches and we’d stage the whole thing, so just about every element of his campaign.”
He also mentioned Mexico, a country where the democratic process has been plagued by violence and corruption linked to drug trafficking, saying: “In Mexico we are about to be involved, heavily.”
Channel 4 News has established that Cambridge Analytica bosses met with several political parties in Mexico in an effort to secure a contract, and opened an office in Mexico City.
But the main parties all denied working with the firm, and it is not registered to provide services to parties in Mexico.
What’s the problem with using Facebook data to target voters?
Before 2015, Facebook allowed app developers like Global Science Research to collect data not only on people using the apps, but on those people’s friends. (The rules have since been tightened). So by building up their database in this way, Dr Kogan and Global Science Research were not breaking Facebook’s rules.
Where it gets more complicated is when Dr Kogan shared the data it had amassed on 50 million users with Cambridge Analytica. Facebook says this sharing of data with a third party was a violation of its terms of service.
According to a recent statement by Facebook, the social media giant “learned of this violation in 2015”, at which point they “removed [Dr Kogan’s] app from Facebook and demanded certification 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.”
Facebook says that it was only “several days ago” that the company “received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted”.
But Facebook’s account of this chain of events has been questioned. Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Facebook’s statement on Cambridge Analytica and Dr Kogan “gave the impression that Facebook had looked into the matter”.
“In fact, the company’s decisions were stemming from information in the news reports set to publish the next day, and it had not independently verified those reports, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.”
How are the UK authorities responding to the revelations?
It’s not just Facebook’s terms of service that could have been broken – the UK’s Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is looking at whether the sharing or acquisition of that data was illegal.
She said (after Mr Wylie’s revelations in the Observer and on Channel 4 News) that her office was “investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used.”
Ms Denham said “It’s part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK are using and analysing people’s personal information to micro target voters.”
The Information Commissioner has now obtained a warrant to analyse Cambridge Analytica’s servers. The Commissioner has the power to prosecute illegal activity if she finds evidence of it.
Meanwhile, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has been summoned to the parliamentary select committee on fake news. The committee chair, Damian Collins, wrote to Mr Zuckerberg last week after details emerged about Cambridge Analytica’s alleged use of Facebook data.
Facebook’s UK director of policy, Simon Milner, appeared before the committee in February, before the latest revelations came out.
When asked whether Facebook had “ever passed any user information over to Cambridge Analytica or any of its associated companies”, Mr Milner said “no”.
When pushed, he said: “They may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.”
Mr Collins said that in past appearances before the committee, Facebook representatives had given answers that “consistently understated” the risk that data could have been taken without users’ consent. He said the answers were “misleading to the committee”.
How are the US authorities responding and why?
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – the watchdog that aims to prevent “anti-competitive, deceptive and unfair business practices” – is examining whether Facebook broke the terms of a 2011 consent agreement in its dealings with Cambridge Analytica.
The FTC can refer cases to the US Department of Justice for criminal prosecution if they find evidence of law-breaking. They also have powers to issue fines.
On Capitol Hill, six congressional committees have asked Facebook to appear before them; the Attorneys General of New York and Massachusetts are launching a joint investigation into Facebook’s activities; and the Connecticut Attorney General has begun his own probe.
And the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) in Washington DC has filed a legal complaint with US regulators alleging Cambridge Analytica’s activities broke election laws.
There are strict laws governing campaign finance in the US – and Cambridge Analytica seem well versed in the rulebook. As Dr Alex Tayler, the company’s then Chief Data Officer told our undercover reporter:
“Campaigns are normally subject to limits about how much money they can raise. Whereas outside groups [known as “super-PACs”, or “political action committees”] can raise an unlimited amount.
“So the campaign will use their finite resources for things like persuasion and mobilisation and then they leave the ‘air war’ they call it, like the negative attack ads to other affiliated groups.”
Co-ordination between a candidate’s campaign and these outside groups is illegal under US election law. Cambridge Analytica say a firewall separated their activities from that of the official campaign.
But Brendan Fischer, a director at the Campaign Legal Center, seems to disagree:
“[The video showing Alexander Nix and Mark Turnbull talking to Channel 4 News’ undercover reporter] seems to provide further evidence for this notion that Cambridge Analytica did indeed act as a conduit for sharing information between the super-PAC and the Trump campaign and that is illegal.”
What about their other tactics?
When asked by our undercover reporter about digging up material on political opponents, Mr Nix said they could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house”, adding that Ukrainian girls “are very beautiful, I find that works very well”.
In another exchange, Mr Nix said: “We’ll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we’ll have the whole thing recorded, we’ll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet.”
Offering bribes to public officials is an offence under both the UK Bribery Act and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Cambridge Analytica operates in the UK and is registered in the United States.
Mr Turnbull also described how Cambridge Analytica would obtain damaging material on their client’s opponents and then discreetly “put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control.”
He said: “It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”
To cover their tracks, apparently because “many of our clients don’t want to be seen to be working with a foreign company”, Mr Turnbull described how Cambridge Analytica often sets up “fake IDs and websites, we can be students doing research projects attached to a university, we can be tourists, there’s so many options we can look at”.
Both Facebook and the Trump campaign have been linked to alleged Russian involvement in the US election.
It’s been known for a while that the Internet Research Agency, a so-called “troll farm” based in St Petersburg, “disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook” during the US presidential election.
One of the questions that legislators on Capitol Hill will be asking Facebook is whether the Cambridge Analytica data leak could have been accessed by third parties, including Russia.
Speaking to Channel 4 News before the latest revelations, former Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, said: “the real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania?
“That is really the nub of the question. So if they were getting advice from say, Cambridge Analytica, or someone else about ‘okay, here are the 12 voters in this town in Wisconsin – that’s whose Facebook pages you need to be on to send these messages’, that indeed would be very disturbing.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller – who is leading the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – has reportedly asked Cambridge Analytica to hand over all the staff emails from the Trump campaign.
Dr Kogan – the psychologist who seems to have provided much of the key data from Facebook to Cambridge Analytica – held a position at St Petersburg State University, and has received Russian government grants for research.
Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, he laughed off suggestions that he could have links to the Kremlin: “This one is pretty funny … anyone who knows me knows I’m a very happy-go-lucky goofy guy, the last one to have any real links to espionage.” Dr Kogan says he has been made a scapegoat in the unfolding saga.
And the Observer reports that Cambridge Analytica itself “also attracted interest from a key Russian firm with links to the Kremlin”. The company in question – Lukoil – “has been used as a vehicle of government influence” and saw a presentation on Cambridge Analytica’s work in 2014.
A Cambridge Analytica spokesman responded by saying: “Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate companies have not worked in Russia and have not worked for a Russian company or organisation.”