Cambridge Analytica

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Cambridge Analytica is a British political consulting firm which uses a variety of methods, officially including data mining, data analysis and communications, to influence elector processes and politicians in numerous countries. In March 2018, the firm became the subject of international scrutiny after it was reported that it used inappropriately obtained Facebook data to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election in favor of Donald Trump and the 2016 referendum on United Kingdom membership in the European Union in favor of the "Brexit" campaign.

In 2018, a whistleblower investigation by the Observer/Guardian and the New York Times, disclosed that Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained Facebook profile information from up to 50-87 million users to build a system which targeted personalized political ads to U.S. voters in the 2016 election.[1] [2] BusinessWeek quoted an unnamed senior member of the Trump campaign explaining: “We have three major voter suppression operations under way.” hese were, writes the magazine, “aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”[3] Cambridge Analytica staff worked inside the Trump data operation in San Antonio during the 2016 election. According to the San Antonio Express-News, the Trump campaign's data analytics operation "employed staff from Cambridge Analytica."[4] At the same time, Russian interests targeted U.S. voters for voter suppression purposes, CNN reported that Robert Mueller's Russia investigation was looking into any overlap between these efforts. [5]

As more evidence emerged that the Russians engaged in sophisticated voter targeting, many on Capitol Hill are raising questions. “I think the Russians had help,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “I’ve always wondered if Cambridge Analytica was part of that.”[6] Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress on April 10-11, 2018. Zuckerberg said that 126 million Facebook users were exposed to content by Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 election. When asked by U.S. Senator Amy Kobuchar if the 126 million users exposed to Russian propaganda included the 87 million targeted by Cambridge Analytica, Zuckerberg said Facebook was investigating and “it is entirely possible that there will be a connection there.”[7]

Cambridge Analytica's activities were subject to multiple investigations in 2018 including Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation of Russian influence on the U.S. elections, a formal U.S. Federal Election Commission investigation and multiple UK investigations of the company's efforts to obtain Facebook data which could be a violation of EU privacy law.

Closure and Bankruptcy Filing

On March 2, 2018, Cambridge Analytica announced it was ceasing operations and beginning insolvency proceedings in both the US and UK. Officials at the company continue to deny wrongdoing but says that the negative media coverage has left it with no clients and mounting legal fees. An official company by the statement read “Despite Cambridge Analytica’s unwavering confidence that its employees have acted ethically and lawfully, the siege of media coverage has driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers.” According to The Guardian, all of Cambridge Analytica's staff had already vacated their New York office as of May 2, 2018.[8]

Global Scope

Cambridge Analytica and related companies have a long and extensive history operating in countries and influencing elections around the world. Experts tracked involvement of SCL Elections in over 100 election campaigns in 32 countries across five continents. Services offered by SCL Elections differed between countries. According to Quartz, "in Kenya, for instance, SCL rolled out a political research project covering 47,000 respondents, part of an effort to understand the needs and fears of the electorate. 'SCL subsequently advised the client (one of Kenya’s two principal parties) on communications, branding and policy,' the document states, possibly referring to Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is reported to have used the firm’s services in 2013 and 2017." In Colombia, SCL Elections surveyed voters ahead of the 2011 elections and advised clients on how to tailor messaging. While this may appear like normal electioneering, the company can also take part in more nefarious activities. Quartz states that "in the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts and Nevis, for instance, SCL says it was able to delay elections and stage a 'national pride' campaign that helped its client hold on to power in the late 2000s."[9]

Connection to the Mercer Family

Robert Mercer, the billionaire computer scientist and co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies hedge fund, and his family were early investors in Cambridge Analytica.[10] His daughter, Rebekah Mercer, a Republican donor and a co-owner of Breitbart News, sits on the board of Cambridge Analytica. Robert Mercer's investment in the company has been calculated at $15 million.[11]

The Mercers became involved in Cambridge Analytica in 2014 through their connection with political strategist Steve Bannon. While working as the editor of Breitbart News, Bannon met Christopher Wiley, Director of Research for SCL, the parent of Cambridge Analytica. Wiley had been working on ways to predict voter behavior based on personality and cultural factors. Bannon brought Wiley to Robert and Rebekah Mercer to present his ideas. The Mercers were interested in the methodology and eventually agreed to become investors in SCL, enabling the creation of Cambridge Analytica. According to Wiley, the Mercers and Bannon were convinced to support Wiley in part because he was gay, as they viewed homosexuals as early adopters of cultural trends.[1] Before becoming a White House advisor, Steve Bannon worked as a vice-president and part owner of Cambridge Analytica according to White House disclosure documents.[12]

News and Controversies

Observer Reports of Facebook Data Misuse by Cambridge Analytica

In March 2018, the UK news outlet Observer (also known as the Guardian) reported that Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained Facebook profile information from up to 87 million users to build a system which could spread targeted personalized political advertisements. The data breaches started in the summer of 2014, when the U.K. affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, SCL Group, hired a Soviet-born American researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to gather various pieces of profile information of Facebook users and what they chose to “Like.”[13] The information was obtained when Facebook users signed up for a personality test app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” However, the app also collected the information of the users’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong.

Cambridge Analytica denied using Facebook data obtained from Kogan in its work for the Trump campaign. However, former Trump campaign officials stated that Cambridge Analytica helped target audiences for ads and fundraising, and assisted in planning Trump's route on the campaign trail to obtain the biggest and most influential followings.[14] Furthermore, Facebook argues that Kogan lied by claiming the data collection was intended for research purposes and then violated the Facebook policies by giving the data to Cambridge Analytica. Kogan claimed his app’s terms and conditions specifically allowed “commercial use.”[13]

This data formed the basis of targeted political ads Cambridge Analytica used by both the Trump campaign and pro-Brexit forces. The targeted ads used a tactic called "psychographic targeting" to go beyond traditional messaging based on party affiliation and target individual preferences on a minute and refined level.[15]

The data breach is the subject of separate inquiries in both the British Information Commissioner’s Office, which is studying the issue as part of an ongoing investigation on data analytics for political purposes and the British Electoral Commission. In America, the Federal Trade Commission is looking into whether or not Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree in which the social media company agreed to get clear permission from users before sharing their data.[13] Cambridge Analytica’s data theft is under investigation by the Attorney General of Massachusetts and has drawn scrutiny from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who has proposed an Honest Ads Act to regulate online political advertising the same way as television, radio and print.[16]

Channel News 4 Investigation of Cambridge Analytica's "Dirty Tricks"

Just a few days after reports of misused Facebook data, Cambridge Analytica was accused of engaging in various unethical practices to further client interests. Channel 4 News in the UK engaged in an undercover operation posing as a representative for a wealthy Sri Lankan family interested in securing political influence in the UK. The journalist recorded an exchange with Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix who answered questions about various “dirty tricks.” Nix stated the firm employs former British and Israeli spies to uncover damaging information about a client’s political opponents and entrap targets with fake bribes. Nix also alluded to hiring prostitutes to seduce political opponents and create additional damaging information. To hide its involvement, Cambridge Analytica would use fake names and shell companies. Operatives would often work in different countries, including the United States, without proper visas and documentation in order to hide the true intention of their activities. In his defense, Nix state he was mere “humoring” the questions posed by the undercover investigator and Cambridge Analytica does not use any unethical practices.[17] Nix was suspended by Cambridge Analytica shortly after the video was published.[14]

FBI Russia Probe Targets Trump Data Operation Tied to Cambridge Analytica

In May 2017, the FBI's criminal probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election turned its focus to "the Trump campaign's 2016 data analytics operation," according to CNN. "Federal investigators have been taking a closer look at the Trump campaign's data analytics operation, which was supervised by Kushner, officials say, and are examining whether Russian operatives used people associated with the campaign -- wittingly or unwittingly -- to try to help Russia's own data targeting" reported CNN. [18] According to the San Antonio Express-News, the Trump campaign's data analytics operation "employed staff from Cambridge Analytica."[19]

The Trump campaign's digital operation was run out of San Antonio. The "operation relied heavily on Facebook both for targeting voters and fundraising...noting that Facebook helped the campaign raise more than $260 million. Along with RNC operatives dispatched to San Antonio, the operation employed staff from Cambridge Analytica. The consulting firm was paid $6 million for its work, which Republican operatives described as voter persuasion.

With Cambridge Analytica's expertise, the Trump campaign engaged in a variety of divisive tactics through Facebook. BusinessWeek quoted an unnamed member of the Trump campaign staff who claimed that their digital operation used Facebook ads and other means to suppress Clinton voter turnout with negative messages aimed at African-Americans, young women and segments of liberals."[20] In October 2017, CNN reported, "A number of Russian-linked Facebook ads specifically targeted Michigan and Wisconsin, two states crucial to Donald Trump's victory last November, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the situation. Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal, two of the sources said. The ads employed a series of divisive messages aimed at breaking through the clutter of campaign ads online, including promoting anti-Muslim messages, sources said."[21]

Lawsuit by Parsons School Professor

The Guardian reported in late September 2017 that David Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, had sued Cambridge Analytica using British laws to try to discover how he was profiled and potentially targeted by the Trump campaign. Carroll reportedly "ask[ed] for his personal data back from the company, and when it failed to supply it, he started filing pretrial actions to sue the company under British law.... He reported the firm to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, which is investigating the use of data in political campaigning..."[22]

Cambridge Analytica Techniques: "Psychological Warfare" and "Disengagement"

SCL Group calls itself a "global election management agency" known for its involvement "in military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting".[23][24] SCL's involvement in the political world has been primarily in the developing world, where it has been used by the military and politicians to study and manipulate public opinion and political will. Slate reported on the company's "ops center" featured during Defense Systems & Equipment International, or DSEi, the United Kingdom's largest showcase for military technology. The ops center can be used by governments to falsely portray scenarios such as a coup, natural disater or chemical weapons attack to command public attention and the action it desires.[25]

The Guardian published a story in May 2017 titled "The Great British Brexit Robbery" -- describing legal complaints against Cambridge Analytica LLC and SCL Elections Limited (Cambridge Analytica's parent group) -- which also described how Cambridge Analytica is a tool born out of the military industrial complex meant to carry out psychological warfare:[26]

"This is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. Us. David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University and an authority in psyops and propaganda, says it is 'an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it's not transparent or open where it's coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.'...
"Finding 'persuadable' voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants 'swamping' the country. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter....
"Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee. Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was 'voter disengagement' and 'to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home': a profoundly disquieting tactic."[26]

In an earlier February 2017 story, The Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr reported:[27]

"Cambridge Analytica... did not answer other questions the Observer put to it this week about how it built its psychometric model, which owes its origins to original research carried out by scientists at Cambridge University's Psychometric Centre, research based on a personality quiz on Facebook that went viral. More than 6 million people ended up doing it, producing an astonishing treasure trove of data....
"But there are strict ethical regulations regarding what you can do with this data. Did SCL Group have access to the university's model or data, I ask Professor Jonathan Rust, the centre's director? 'Certainly not from us,' he says. 'We have very strict rules around this.'
"A scientist, Aleksandr Kogan, from the centre was contracted to build a model for SCL, and says he collected his own data. Professor Rust says he doesn't know where Kogan's data came from. 'The evidence was contrary. I reported it.' An independent adjudicator was appointed by the university. 'But then Kogan said he'd signed a non-disclosure agreement with SCL and he couldn't continue [answering questions].'"[27]

Professor Rust told The Guardian that, in his opinion:[27]

"The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It's what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It's how you brainwash someone. It's incredibly dangerous.
"It's no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don't know it's happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs."[27]

Cambridge Analytica's parent group, SCL Group, strategizes the technological tools Cambridge Analytica has to effect behavioral and psychological changes, The Guardian reports:[27]

"Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, wrote about SCL Group... 'There are different arms of SCL but it's all about reach and the ability to shape the discourse. They are trying to amplify particular political narratives. And they are selective in who they go for: they are not doing this for the left.'
"In the course of the US election, Cambridge Analytica amassed a database, as it claims on its website, of almost the entire US voting population -- 220 million people -- and the Washington Post reported last week that SCL was increasing staffing at its Washington office and competing for lucrative new contracts with Trump's administration. 'It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if it's the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear,' says Briant.
"It's the database, and what may happen to it, that particularly exercises Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician and data activist who has been investigating Cambridge Analytica and SCL for more than a year. 'How is it going to be used?' he says. 'Is it going to be used to try and manipulate people around domestic policies? Or to ferment conflict between different communities? It is potentially very scary. People just don't understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them.'
"There are two things, potentially, going on simultaneously: the manipulation of information on a mass level, and the manipulation of information at a very individual level. Both based on the latest understandings in science about how people work, and enabled by technological platforms built to bring us together....
"Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called 'cognitive warfare.'"[27]

Cambridge Analytica Offered to Help Wikileaks Release Clinton Emails

According to CBS News, Cambridge Analytica sought to coordinate the disemination of Hillary Clinton's deleted emails, held by Wikileaks, to benefit the Trump campaign. The idea supposedly originated with Rebekah Mercer, who emailed Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix about organizing the release of the emails in collaboration with Wikileaks. Cambridge Analytica reached out to Julian Assange, editor of Wikileaks, about potential collaboration.[28] According to CNN, Nix asked to work with Assange to turn Clinton's emails into a searchable database for the Trump campaign or a pro-Trump political action committee. [29] Assange declined to collaborate with Cambridge Analytica.[28]

Connection to SCL Group and Ownership Structure

According to The Guardian, Cambridge Analytica "is owned by the Mercer family and a UK company called SCL Elections, which is part of the SCL Group."[30]

SCL Group is a UK-based behavioural research and strategic communication company. CL Group was founded by British businessman Nigel Oakes, deriving it from an earlier company called Behavioral Dynamics Institute (BDI).[31] The Guardian also reports that "until 2015, SCL Group was known as Strategic Communication Laboratories. It was only registered with UK Companies House in 2005, but was mentioned in articles in 2000 about the Indonesian elections.[30]SCL and Cambridge Analytica share some of the same directors, including Alexander Nix who first joined SCL in 2003.[32]

Despite his suspension, Nix remains a director and retains partial ownership of SCL Group, which continues to work on political campaigns around the world and for governments. SCL signed a contract with the U.S. State Department during the week of March 12, 2018.[33]

Other owners of SCL include prominent politicians and donors connected to the UK's Tory party. Reports of possible investors include Lord Marland, a British businessman who became a minister in 2010, Sir Geoffrey Pattie, a former Conservative defense and industry minister, major Conservative party donor Roger Gabb, and the real estate company Consensus Business Group[30]

Request for DOJ/FBI Investigation by CREW and Democracy 21

On March 29, 2018, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Democracy 21 wrote a letter to AnnaLou Tirol Acting Chief, Public Integrity Section, U.S. Department of Justice and Andrew Vale, Assistant Director in Charge, FBI Washington Field Office to request an "investigation of SCL Elections Ltd., Cambridge Analytica LLC, Alexander Nix, unknown foreign nationals, Stephen Bannon, John Bolton Super PAC, and Donald J. Trump for President, Inc." The good governance NGOs allege that these actors "criminally violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (“FECA”) by directly or indirectly participating in the decision-making process of the John Bolton Super PAC and Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., both federal political committees, in violation of 52 U.S.C. § 30121(a)(1) and 11 C.F.R. § 110.20(i)" and further requests that law enforcement agencies "investigate whether Stephen Bannon, the John Bolton Super PAC, and Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., conspired with or aided and abetted SCL Elections Ltd., Cambridge Analytica LLC, Alexander Nix, Stephen Bannon, and unknown other parties to violate 52 U.S.C. § 30121(a)(1) and 11 C.F.R. § 110.20(i)." The letter explains that "The law prohibits foreign nationals from participating, directly or indirectly, in elections in the United States. That prohibition covers not only the making of financial contributions, but also any foreign national’s direct or indirect participation in the decision-making process of any person with respect to its federal or non-federal election-related activities. Nevertheless, SCL Elections Ltd., a corporation based in the United Kingdom; Alexander Nix, a British national, through his work as manager at Cambridge Analytica, a company in which Stephen Bannon was a manager and director; and an unknown number of foreign nationals working with either corporation directly or indirectly participated in the decision-making process of John Bolton Super PAC, a registered political committee with the FEC, starting in as early as 2014, and appear to have played a similar role in the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump."[34]

Emergence of Emerdata

After the closure of Cambridge Analytica, reports surfaced that a new firm called Emerdata could be taking its place. According to public filings at Britain’s Companies House, Emerdata was incorporated in August 2017. The filings also show that Julian Wheatland, Chairman of SCL Group and Alexander Tayler Cambridge Analytica’s former chief data officer, established the Emerdata. Wheatland is also listed as a Director, along with former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. The primary purpose of the company is “data processing, hosting, and related activities” and i shares an address in Canary Wharf with SCL Group.[35]

On March 16, after the initial scandal broke, Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer joined the board of Emerdata. This indicates that the Mercer family could continue to play a major role in funding the same type of manipulative political activities.[35]

Johnson Chun Shun Ko, deputy chairman of Frontier Services Group, is also a director of Emerdata. Frontier Services Group is chaired by Blackwater founder and Trump supporter Eric Prince.[35]

Contact Information

Cambridge Analytica
597 5th Avenue, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10017

1901 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Suite 902
Washington, DC 20006

55 New Oxford Street
London, WC1A 1BS

Website:https://cambridgeanalytica.org/
Email: press@cambridgeanalytica.org
Twitter: https://twitter.com/camanalytica

Resources

‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower, "The Guardian", (March 18, 2018).

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions "New York Times", (March 17, 2018).

References

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  2. Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore, Carole Cadwalladr How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions "New York Times", March 17, 2018.
  3. Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg, Inside the Trump Bunker, With Days to Go, "Bloomberg Businessweek", October 27, 2016.
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  5. Evan Perez, Pamela Brown, Shimon Prokupecz and Gloria Borger, FBI Russia investigation looking at Kushner role, CNN, May 26, 2017.
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  7. Maya Rao, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar queries Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg on privacy, "Minneapolis Star Tribune", April 10, 2018.
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  20. Bill Lambrecht, http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/S-A-web-firm-might-be-included-in-probe-of-the-11177097.php S.A. web firm might be included in probe of the Trump-Russia ties], San Antonio Express-News, May 26, 2017.
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  28. 28.0 28.1 Assange confirms WikiLeaks was approached by Trump-linked data firm "CBS News" October 26, 2017.
  29. Kara Scannell, Dana Bash and Marshall Cohen Trump campaign analytics company contacted WikiLeaks about Clinton emails "CNN", October 27, 2017.
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Holly Watt and Hillary Osborne Tory donors among investors in Cambridge Analytica parent firm, "The Guardian", March 21, 2018.
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  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 Shona Ghosh, The power players behind Cambridge Analytica have set up a mysterious new data company, "Business Insider", March 21, 2018.