London-based Cambridge Analytica is a data mining and predictive analytics company based out of UK. Founded in 2013, the company received funding from Republican and billionaire Robert Mercer who pumped in $15 million as an investor.
The company uses psychographic profiling from a wide array of sources such as consumer spending data, social media profiles, public records and uses the information to predict voting behaviour through behavioural and predictive analytics. It then uses data-driven advertising technology to send them customized messages to influence voting behaviour.
It is alleged that Cambridge Analytica acquired and misused Facebook data to influence voting behaviour in the U.S. Presidential Elections and the Brexit referendum on Leave EU in the U.K.
The story was first reported by UK-based The Observer and The New York Times. An undercover investigative video by Channel 4 caught then CEO Alexander Nix boasting about how bribery and honey traps influenced voting results and went as far as claiming that all the digital campaigns for Donald Trump were handled by him. He 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.”
Nix also boasted about how his company to cover its tracks used ProtonMail, a self-destructing email service.
Alexander Nix was working in the capacity of the CEO of Cambridge Analytica until recently when he was suspended by the Board after it was revealed that he was caught in a sting related to the Facebook data breach controversy.
Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower, is the Canadian ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica who was holding the position of Research Director at the company. He was the one who has spilled the beans around this controversy. In 2013, Wylie was introduced to a company called Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Group whose subsidiary SCL Elections went on to create Cambridge Analytica.
In 2017 Wylie turns into a whistleblower and confides with The Guardian on the modus operandi of Cambridge Analytica. Going as far as saying
“It’s insane. The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”
Wylie led a scathing attack on his former employer:
Steve Bannon is the former Vice President of Cambridge Analytica, Bannon headed the last phase of Trump’s Presidential election and was also the Chief Strategist of the White House.
Mark Turnbull is the Managing Director of CA Political Global, the political division at Cambridge Analytica.
Aleksandr Kogan, a data miner set up Global Science Research (GSR) to carry out Cambridge Analytica’s data research business. In June 2014, SCL enters into an agreement with GSR for harvesting and processing Facebook data.
Kogan launched a personality quiz app called
thisisyourdigitallife which was projected as a research experiment to be used by psychologists for research purposes. It is believed that approximately 270,000 users downloaded this app and ended up giving access to the app on information such as where they lived, their likes and friend lists.
Prior to 2015 apps could gain access to not just your data but that of the people in your network as well. Unless users had blocked this access from their privacy setting. Kogan’s app exploited this vulnerability and scrapped data not just from the users but from their network of friends as well.
After a much anticipated and delayed reaction, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, finally reacted to the Cambridge Analytica controversy.
“This was a major breach of trust and I’m really sorry this happened,” confessed Mark Zuckerberg in an interview to CNN. He further added: “Our responsibility now is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Even the $16 billion that WhatsApp co-founders Jam Koum and Brian Acton received from Facebook in 2014 didn’t prevent the latter from stating his unabashed opinion on the Facebook data breach controversy. Brian Acton jumped on the trending hashtag #deletefacebook and tweeted:
It is time. #deletefacebook
— Brian Acton (@brianacton) 1521586819000
US. Senators want Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the Congress. Lawmakers in the United Kingdom are also keen to have Zuckerberg testify before the UK Parliament.
India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, has also reacted to this controversy and said:
“Mr. Mark Zuckerberg you better know the observation of IT Minister of India, if any data theft of Indians is done with the collusion of FB systems, it will not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act including summoning you in India.”
The Facebook data scandal allegedly orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica is turning out to be a shot in the arm for internet privacy advocates in India and rest of the world. If there is a time for stringent regulations around data security, it is now. Data companies must put in adequate safeguards in place to ensure data privacy and comply with be better safe than sorry.