Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting firm which uses data collection and analysis to provide strategic planning for elections.
The New York Times and the Observer in London recently on March 17th exposed a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica misusing data of 50 million users acquired from Facebook to influence public voters. These news outlets received their information from former employees, associates, and documents. Investigations are going on at present on how the work they do may have affected the BREXIT and the 2016 US presidential election. The legitimacy of the workings of Cambridge Analytica was under scrutiny but only now the full scope of the situation is visible.
All this has been revealed by a whistleblower to the Observer. Christopher Wylie is a Canadian data analytics expert who was a Cambridge employee at the time of the breach. He left Cambridge for Eunoia Technologies, a company he set up.
Christopher Wylie 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.”
Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer was headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon. They used personal information taken without authorization in early 2014 to build a system for profiling individual US voters, in order to target them with personalized political advertisements.
The New York Times reports that copies of the users’ data can still be found online, which their reporting team had seen.
An app called this is your digital life was used which collected data on the pretext of a personality test and also paid the users for it. Aleksandr Kogan is an academic who separately from his work at Cambridge University built the app through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica. The app also accumulated a data pool of tens of millions-strong by collecting the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends. Facebook’s “platform policy” barred them from selling or advertising that information.
Cambridge Analytica wanted to create a tool that can easily identify the personalities of American voters. The tool would later use this data to predict behaviour and influence votes using personalized political advertisements. This process is called psychographic modelling. Kogan’s involvement starts here because data was needed to do this.
During the period of US Presidential campaign, 50 Million users accounted for a third of active accounts in North America. The count is almost a quarter of potential US voters. The British Information Commissioner’s Office has placed Cambridge Analytica and Facebook for data and politics. They are also separately being investigated by the Electoral Commission on account of the role Cambridge Analytica played in the EU referendum.
Facebook’s immediate response was to suspend whistleblower Christopher Wylie from the platform, and they also threatened to sue The Observer for publishing this story, saying it was making “false and defamatory” allegations. While Kogan claimed to be collecting the data for academic purposes, Facebook did not verify this claim.
Currently, the British Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating whether the data was “illegally acquired and used”. Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller has demanded emails of the Cambridge employees who were involved as a part of Trump’s campaign team. He is currently leading the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 American election.