LONDON: As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 US midterm elections, it had a problem.
The firm had secured a $15 million (Dh55 million) investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of US voters and influence their behaviour. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the US electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.
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 conservative investors seeking to reshape politics — under scrutiny from investigators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge and worked there until late 2014, said of its 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,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”
Details of Cambridge’s acquisition and use of Facebook data have surfaced in several accounts since the business began working on the 2016 campaign, setting off a furious debate about the merits of the firm’s psychographic modelling techniques.
Paid to acquire data
But the full scale of the data leak involving Americans has not been previously disclosed — and Facebook, until now, has not acknowledged it. Interviews with a half-dozen former employees and contractors, and a review of the firm’s emails and documents, have revealed that Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but also still possesses most or all of the trove.
Cambridge paid to acquire the personal information through an outside researcher who, Facebook says, claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes.
During a week of inquiries from The Times, Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control. But Friday, the company posted a statement expressing alarm and promising to take action.
“This was a scam — and a fraud,” Paul Grewal, a vice president and deputy general counsel at the social network, said in a statement to The Times earlier Friday. He added that the company was suspending Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and the researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic, from Facebook. “We will take whatever steps are required to see that the data in question is deleted once and for all — and take action against all offending parties,” Grewal said.
Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, and other officials had repeatedly denied obtaining or using Facebook data, most recently during a parliamentary hearing last month. But in a statement to The Times, the company acknowledged that it had acquired the data, though it blamed Kogan for violating Facebook’s rules and said it had deleted the information as soon as it learnt of the problem two years ago.
In Britain, Cambridge Analytica is facing intertwined investigations by Parliament and government regulators, who are scrutinising possible data privacy violations and allegations that it performed illegal work on the Brexit campaign. In the United States, Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, a board member, Bannon and Nix received warnings from their lawyer that it was illegal to employ foreigners in political campaigns, according to company documents and former employees.
Congressional investigators have questioned Nix about the company’s role in the Trump campaign. And the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, has demanded the emails of Cambridge Analytica employees who worked for the Trump team as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the election.
Reading voter’s mind
In late 2013, Nix, a brash salesman, led the small elections division at SCL Group, a political and defence contractor. He had spent much of the year trying to break into the lucrative new world of political data, recruiting Wylie, then a 24-year-old political operative interested in using inherent psychological traits to affect voters’ behaviour. Wylie had assembled a team of psychologists and data scientists, some of them affiliated with Cambridge University.
Nix and his colleagues courted Mercer, who believed a sophisticated data company could make him a kingmaker in Republican politics, and his daughter, who shared his conservative views. Bannon was intrigued by the possibility of using personality profiling to shift America’s culture and rewire its politics, Wylie recalled. Through a spokeswoman, Bannon declined to comment.
Building psychographic profiles on a national scale required data the company could not gather without huge expense. Traditional analytics firms used voting records and consumer purchase histories to try to predict voting behaviour.
But those kinds of records were useless for figuring out whether a particular voter was, say, a neurotic introvert, a religious extrovert, a fair-minded liberal or a fan of the occult. Those were among the psychological traits the firm claimed would provide a uniquely powerful means of designing political messages.
Wylie found a solution at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre. Researchers there had developed a technique to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook. The researchers paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would scrape some private information from their profiles and those of their friends, activity that Facebook permitted at the time.
When the Psychometrics Centre declined to work with the firm, Wylie found someone who would: Kogan, who was a psychology professor at the university. Kogan built his own app and in June 2014 began harvesting data for Cambridge Analytica. The business covered the costs — more than $800,000 — and allowed him to keep a copy for his own research, according to company emails and financial records.
All he divulged to Facebook, and to users in fine print, was that he was collecting information for academic purposes, the social network said. It did not verify his claim. Kogan declined to provide details of what happened, though he maintained that his program was “a very standard vanilla Facebook app.”
He ultimately provided more than 50 million raw profiles to the firm, Wylie said. Of those, roughly 30 million contained enough information, including places of residence, that the company could match users to other records and build psychographic profiles.
Just as Kogan’s efforts were getting under way, Mercer agreed to invest $15 million in a joint venture with SCL’s elections division. The partners devised a convoluted corporate structure, forming a new US company, owned almost entirely by Mercer, with a license to the psychographics platform developed by Wylie’s team, according to company documents. Bannon, who became a board member, chose the name: Cambridge Analytica.
The firm was effectively a shell. According to the documents and former employees, any contracts won by Cambridge, incorporated in Delaware, would be serviced by London-based SCL and overseen by Nix, a British citizen. Most SCL employees and contractors were Canadian, like Wylie, or European.
In summer and fall 2014, Cambridge Analytica dived into the US midterm elections. Few Americans were involved in the work, which included polling, focus groups and message development for the John Bolton super PAC, conservative groups in Colorado and the campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina.
Cambridge Analytica, in its statement to The Times, said that all “personnel in strategic roles were US nationals or green card holders.” Nix “never had any strategic or operational role” in a US election campaign, the company said.
Today, as Cambridge Analytica seeks to expand its business, Nix has mentioned some questionable practices. This January, in undercover footage filmed by Channel 4 News in Britain, he boasted of employing front companies and former spies on behalf of political clients around the world and even suggested ways to entrap politicians in compromising situations.
All the scrutiny appears to have affected business. No US campaigns or super PACs have yet reported paying the company for work in the 2018 midterms, and it is unclear whether Cambridge will be asked to join Trump’s re-election campaign.