The CEO of Cambridge Analytica was suspended on Tuesday, after allegations that the firm stole data of 50 million Facebook users to manipulate the 2016 US Presidential Elections surfaced. In a sting operation by Britain’s Channel 4 News, Alexander Nix is heard boasting to an undercover reporter that his company helped Donald Trump win the elections.
Since the allegations surfaced, Cambridge Analytica, Nix and Trump’s campaign have denied the allegations. Facebook has expressed outrage at the alleged misuse of data by the firm.
What is Cambridge Analytica?
Cambridge Analytica is a British firm which was created in 2013 with $15 million in funding from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer. It is a subsidiary of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), a government and military contractor. The company, which has a clientele of both politicians and corporates, offers services in consumer research, targeted advertising and other data-related services. It aided Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign before helping Trump’s campaign. It is also known for helping the ‘Leave’ side in the Brexit referendum.
The company has five offices in New York, Washington, London, Brazil and Malaysia.
What are the allegations levelled against the company?
In a video released by Channel 4, CEO Nix is heard saying the company helped Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns for the 2013 and 2017 elections. He also reveals that the company could use bribes, former spies and Ukrainian sex workers to entrap politicians around the world.
Channel 4 wrote in its latest story: “In the meetings, the executives boasted that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) had worked in more than two hundred elections across the world, including Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina.”
In reference to Trump’s presidential campaign, it is accused of illegally accessing the personal data of millions of Facebook users in 2014 in a bid to manipulate the outcome of polls.
The company has denied all allegations.
MYTH #2: CA used Facebook data for the Donald J. Trump for President campaign.
REALITY: We used no data from Facebook in our models. We ran a standard political data science program with the same kind of political preference models used by other presidential campaigns.
— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) March 20, 2018
MYTH #3: CA used personality profiles in the 2016 US presidential election.
REALITY: We joined in June. There wasn’t time. Building a presidential data program takes campaigns well over a year. So we focused on the core elements of a political data science program.
— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) March 20, 2018
How did it get hold on Facebook data?
The data was reportedly accessed through an application, developed by British academic and psychology professor at Cambridge University Aleksandr Kogan. He was allegedly paid $800,000 to develop thisisyourdigitallife. After around 27,000 people downloaded the app and logged in via Facebook, he gathered their data and the data of their friends — without consent — and passed on to Cambridge Analytica.
What kind of data was he interested in?
The app, thisisyourdigitallife, accessed the users’ basic information such as city of residence, as well as details about their friends. It also illegally accessed data from the profiles of their Facebook friends.
What was the data used for?
Cambridge Analytica boasts that the Facebook data helped develop psychological profiles of users and votes, which was subsequently used to influence them. This reportedly had a greater impact on voters than traditional advertising.
What has Facebook said?
Facebook is under immense pressure from authorities following Channel 4’s investigation. It has drawn criticism for its inaction in protecting users’ privacy. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been summoned by a British parliamentary media committee to explain the company’s position. Facebook Inc’s shares have fallen up to 17 per cent over the controversy — they were on Monday trading at the cheapest since the company’s initial public offering nearly six years ago, according to Reuters. The company has lost $60 billion of its stock market value in the last two days.
In a statement, FB said, “The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”
Britain, meanwhile, has expressed concern over the allegations. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May stated: “The allegations are clearly very concerning. It is essential that people can have confidence that their personal data will be protected and used in an appropriate way. So it is absolutely right that the Information Commissioner is investigating this matter. We expect Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and all the organisations involved to cooperate fully.”
Will this impact Mueller’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections?
Special Counsel Robert Mueller believes the revelations can help determining Russian interference in the US elections. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mueller has requested Cambridge Analytica to “turn over documents as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election”.
Does this have any bearing in India?
In India, SCL partners with a company called Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI), which is owned by Amrish Tyagi, son of the senior JD(U) leader K C Tyagi. The company lists BJP, Congress and Janata Dal (United) as its political clients. Strategic Communications Laboratories Private Limited, an Indian company based out of Ghaziabad, counts both Tyagi and Nix as its directors.
Tyagi has said that queries regarding Channel 4’s investigation should be directed to Cambridge Analytica.
(With inputs from agencies)