Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that did digital work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and has close ties to Steve Bannon and GOP megadonor Robert Mercer, is in hot water after several recent reports have raised ethical and potentially legal questions about its business practices.
The New York Times and Observer reported last week that Cambridge obtained private Facebook data — specifically, information on tens of millions of Facebook profiles — from an outside researcher who provided it to them in violation of his own agreement with Facebook.
The firm got it through researcher Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian American who worked at the University of Cambridge.
Kogan built a Facebook app that was a quiz.
It not only collected data from people who took the quiz, but it also exposed a loophole in Facebook API that allowed it to collect data from the Facebook friends of the quiz takers as well.
Facebook prohibited the selling of data collected with this method, but Cambridge Analytica sold the data anyway.
This highlights a larger debate over how much users can trust Facebook with their data: Facebook allowed a third-party developer to engineer an application for the sole purpose of gathering data. And the developer was able to exploit a loophole to gather information on not only people who used the app but all their friends — without them knowing.
It would be one thing if this were a new, one-time error. But Facebook has known about this for more than two years, and only now are they actually acknowledging they made a mistake.
Meanwhile, Channel 4 News in the UK has posted video in which Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix says his firm conducts dirty tricks such as trying to tape its candidates’ opponents accepting purported bribes or sending girls around to the opposing candidate’s house. As a result of these reports, Cambridge announced Tuesday afternoon that it would suspend Nix pending an investigation.
Cambridge Analytica also assigned dozens of non-U.S. citizens to provide campaign strategy and messaging advice to Republican candidates in 2014, according to three former workers for the data firm, even as an attorney warned executives to abide by U.S. laws limiting foreign involvement in elections.
The assignments came amid efforts to present the newly created company as “an American brand” that would appeal to U.S. political clients even though its parent, SCL Group, was based in London, according to former Cambridge Analytica research director Christopher Wylie.
Wylie, who emerged this month as a whistleblower, provided The Washington Post with documents that describe a program across several U.S. states to win campaigns for Republicans using psychological profiling to reach voters with individually tailored messages.
The documents include previously unreported details about the program, which was called “Project Ripon” for the Wisconsin town where the Republican Party was born in 1854.
U.S. election regulations say foreign nationals must not “directly or indirectly participate in the decision-making process” of a political campaign, although they can play lesser roles.
Cambridge Analytica was overwhelmingly staffed by non-U.S. citizens — mainly Canadians, Britons and other Europeans — at least 20 of whom fanned out across the United States in 2014 to work on congressional and legislative campaigns, the three former Cambridge workers said.
Many of those employees and contractors were involved in helping to decide what voters to target with political messages and what messages to deliver to them, the former workers said. Their tasks ran the gamut of campaign work, including “managing media relations” as well as fundraising, planning events, and providing “communications strategy” and “talking points, speeches and debate prep,” according to a document touting the firm’s 2014 work.
“Its dirty little secret was that there was no one American involved in it, that it was a de facto foreign agent, working on an American election,” Wylie said.
Two other former Cambridge Analytica workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear that they may have violated U.S. law in their campaign work, said concerns about the legality of Cambridge Analytica’s work in the United States were a regular subject of employee conversations at the company, especially after the 2014 vote.
The two former workers said employees worried the company was giving its foreign employees potentially inaccurate immigration documents to provide upon entering the United States, showing that they were not there to work when they had arrived for the purpose of advising campaigns.
“We knew that everything was not above board, but we weren’t too concerned about it,” said one of the former Cambridge Analytica workers, who spent several months in the United States working on Republican campaigns. “It was the Wild West. That’s certainly how they carried on in 2014.”
The former workers’ claims represent the latest in a series of complications for Cambridge Analytica, which was founded in 2013 by the wealthy Mercer family and Bannon, the conservative strategist who was executive chairman of Breitbart News and later became a top adviser to President Trump.
The prospect of new legal scrutiny for Bannon comes at a turbulent time for the conservative strategist. He left his job as a senior White House strategist in August and in January stepped down from Breitbart News after harsh quotations attributed to him about Trump and family members appeared in the Michael Wolff book “Fire and Fury.”
The Mercer family, long Bannon’s financial patrons, also have distanced themselves from Bannon.
Cambridge Analytica, whose offices were raided over the weekend by British authorities, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Project Ripon was described by Wylie and other workers as an ambitious effort in which Cambridge Analytica would advise American campaigns on how to use data to find “hidden Republicans.” Ripon also was the name of an online campaign management tool designed for the effort and described in a company brochure that was subtitled, “WINNING BACK AMERICA.”
Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica at the end of 2014 because of rising uneasiness about its politics and the leadership of Nix, said in interviews with The Post that he was part of multiple conference calls in 2014 with Bannon and Nix, in which strategic campaign matters were discussed.
Former Cambridge Analytica workers said they routinely worked on U.S. campaigns, developing messages, creating campaign materials such as ads and videos, and helping the campaigns decide whom to target with those messages.
“The nature of targeting is fundamentally influential to the direction of a campaign because you’re deciding what messages go to whom and when,” Wylie said. “There’s no such thing as managing targeting in a non-influential way.”