Cambridge Analytica is a data analysis firm that claims to have a trove of data about the personal preferences of many Americans. The firm helped Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and has now been suspended from Facebook.
Special prosecutor Robert Mueller previously requested documents from the company as part of his investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, previously tweeted that he was contacted by the company about Hillary Clinton’s emails. In short, Cambridge Analytica has found itself the subject of growing secrecy.
The Facebook suspension derives from the use of an app “thisisyourdigitallife” to obtain personal information of 270,000 people and their friends. What is Cambridge Analytica?
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Facebook Suspended the Company, Which Claims to Have Data Points on 230 Million Americans
Facebook wrote in a statement on March 16, 2018 that it was “Suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from Facebook.” Cambridge Analytica uses “psychographic” data, meaning it uses data points culled from the internet to create personality profiles of people to use for targeted purposes, such as in an election. The Facebook statement was signed by Paul Grewal, VP & Deputy General Counsel.
“We are suspending Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), including their political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, from Facebook. Given the public prominence of this organization, we want to take a moment to explain how we came to this decision and why,” the statement read. The statement reads in part:
Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe. He also passed that data to Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc.
Like all app developers, Kogan requested and gained access to information from people after they chose to download his app. His app, “thisisyourdigitallife,” offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as “a research app used by psychologists.” Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app. In so doing, they gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it.
Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules. By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.
Breaking the Rules Leads to Suspension
Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made. We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information.
The company’s website says that “CA Political will equip you with the data and insights necessary to drive your voters to the polls and win your campaign. We offer a proven combination of predictive analytics, behavioral sciences, and data-driven ad tech.”
It claims the company has accumulated a treasure trove of data. “With up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters, we build your custom target audience, then use this crucial information to engage, persuade, and motivate them to act.” Services provided include polling, predictive analytics, list building, and event promotion.
In December 2017, two House Democrats asked House Republicans to subpoena Cambridge Analytica and another data firm. Jerrold Nadler, ranking member of the House Committee on the Judiciary, and Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, signed the letter. They sent the letter to Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Bob Goodlatte, Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary requesting that subpoenas be sent to the firms Cambridge Analytica and Giles-Parscale.
The letter says that Cummings and Conyers sent a letter to five data consultants to the 2017 presidential campaign, including Cambridge Analytica “requesting documents relating to their possible engagement with foreign actors such as WikiLeaks, communication with foreign governments, and use of misappropriated data.” Three of the companies denied “any foreign contacts whatsoever and declined to produce any documents.”
According to the letter, “Cambridge Analytica refused to respond to our inquiry and thus ddi that the company had contacts and communications with foreign governments or foreign actors. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange confirmed that Cambridge Analytica approached WikiLeaks during the campaign to coordinate the release of Clinton’s missing emails. Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, also confirmed this attempted outreach. The letter stated the investigation was critical to learn more about high-level Trump campaign officials alleged contacts with WikiLeaks.
2. Cambridge Analytica Has Ties to Mega Trump Donor Robert Mercer
According to Mother Jones, the firm is “partially owned by Trump mega-donor Robert Mercer and the place where former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon once served as vice president.” During the presidential election, “Cambridge Analytica’s work for the Trump campaign was overseen by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior advisor,” Raw Story reports.
The Guardian also reported on the Robert Mercer connection, reporting that “he is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group.” According to The Guardian, “When Robert Mercer started supporting Trump, Cambridge Analytica came too. And where Mercer’s money is, Steve Bannon is usually close by: it was reported that until recently he had a seat on the board.”
Robert Mercer and the powerful Mercer family have become forces to reckon with in the background of Republican politics and are considered instrumental players in the election of President Donald Trump. Rebekah Mercer, one of hedge fund financier Robert Mercer’s three daughters with his wife, Diana, was thrust into the controversy surrounding the new Michael Wolff book on Donald Trump. Called “Fire and Fury,” it presents a series of incendiary allegations against the president, mostly in the form of negative comments that people close to him supposedly made to the author. Among them: The President’s former adviser, Steve Bannon, who was plucked by the president from the conservative Breitbart website, which the Mercers back.
The Mercer family were key financiers of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. According to The Washington Post, “the Mercers have given at least $36.6 million to GOP candidates and super PACs since 2010.” Rebekah Mercer was tapped for the president’s transition team. Robert Mercer made his billions in hedge funds. “Politically conservative, Mercer has become one of the Republican party’s biggest contributors, spending $25 million in the 2016 campaign and backing Trump,” Forbes Magazine has reported. He is listed as age 71, self-made, married with three children, and living in Mount Sinai, New York.
In February 2017, Breitbart’s CEO Larry Solov confirmed that the Mercer family was co-owners of Breitbart. “The company’s owners are himself, Susie Breitbart (the widow of founder Andrew Breitbart) and the Mercer family,” Buzzfeed reported. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Mercer family “bought nearly 50% of Breitbart News for $10 million in 2011.”
According to Forbes Magazine, Robert Mercer is a “Former IBM language recognition specialist” who “joined Renaissance Technologies in 1993. Took over as co-CEO of the successful quantitative hedge fund firm in 2011 when Renaissance founder James Simons retired.”
Robert Mercer is a libertarian who detests the Republican establishment, according to a profile in The New Yorker. He was also described as being prone to believing Clinton conspiracy theories and heatedly denying being a white supremacist. According to the New Yorker, Rebekah Mercer urged the ultimately failed appointment of Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security advisor.
3. A U.S. Professor Filed a Claim Against Cambridge Analytica in a British Court
A professor in the United States named David Carroll has filed a court action in Great Britain over privacy concerns that could lead to Cambridge Analytica having to reveal more details about its operations, according to a lengthy article on Carroll’s actions in Mother Jones.
Carroll is a professor of media at New York’s Parsons School of Design. After the 2016 presidential election, he heard that Cambridge Analytica may have been set up in the UK to process the personal data of Americans. He decided to use British privacy laws to find out what the firm had on him. According to Mother Jones, the professor requested his own personal data from Cambridge Analytica and received back a detailed list predicting his political leanings.
The professor later released the company’s data on him on Twitter. “People were kind of terrified that this information was accurate,” Carroll told Mother Jones, which added that he and others have started a legal fight against the company in England. “People had a visceral reaction that their voter files aren’t being protected like they ought to be.”
4. Hillary Clinton Praised Republican Data Efforts & Said the Democrats Were Not as Sophisticated
Hillary Clinton brought up Cambridge Analytica in some of her many comments after losing the 2016 election. Speaking at a coding convention, Clinton criticized the Democrats’ data operations, saying, “So I set up my own campaign, and we have our own data operation. I get the nomination. So I’m now the nominee of the Democratic Party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party. I mean, it was bankrupt. It was on the verge of insolvency. Its data was mediocre to poor, non-existent, wrong. I had to inject money into it. The DNC to keep it going.”
She then segued to Trump’s efforts and mentioned Cambridge Analytica. “OK. Donald Trump, who did nothing about really setting up any kind of data operation inherits an RNC data foundation, that after the Republicans lost in 2012, and they thought they had a very good operation with the set up that Romney did, called Orca, they thought that was really state of the art, they lose. So they raised best estimates are close to $100 million. They brought in their main vendors. They basically said we will never be behind the Democrats again. And they invested between 2012 and 2016 $100 million to build this data foundation. They beta tested it. They ran it.”
She said “about 227,000 surveys” were sent out “to double triple and quadruple check the information.”
“So Trump becomes the nominee, and he is basically handed this tried and true effective, foundation. Then you’ve got Cambridge Analytica, and you know, you can believe the hype on how great they were or the hype on how they weren’t, the fact is they added something, and I think again we better understand that. The Mercers did not invest all that money just for their own amusement. We know they played in Brexit. And we know that they came to Jared Kushner and they basically said we will marry our operation which was more as it’s been described psychographic, sentiment, a lot of harvesting of Facebook information. We will marry that with the RNC. On two conditions, you pick Steve Bannon and you pick Keyllanne Conway. And then we’re in.”
5. Assange Says He Was Contacted by Cambridge Analytica About Hillary Clinton’s Emails
Julian Assange tweeted previously that WikiLeaks was contacted by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential election.
“Special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly requested all emails from employees at the firm who worked with the Trump campaign, and Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix also reportedly interviewed with the House Intelligence Committee,” The Hill reported.
Assange tweeted “that he could confirm that he was contacted by Nix prior to November 2016 and that Nix’s request was declined. It was reported that Nix was interested in obtaining the 33,000 emails deleted from Clinton’s private server used during her time leading the State Department,” according to the Hill, which added that “Nix was reported earlier this year to have been in contact with top Trump donor Rebekah Mercer about better organizing emails being released by WikiLeaks.”
According to Vox, the firm also has ties to Michael Flynn, the disgraced National Security Adviser for Trump. He disclosed “a brief advisory role with a firm related to a controversial data analysis company that aided the Trump campaign,” which was identified as Cambridge Analytica, Vox reports.
Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing, telling Vox, “CA is not under investigation, and there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the company.”