Analysis Facebook has “suspended” any business with controversial analytics firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) and its holding company, following claims by CA’s former director that the social media ad slinger’s data was purloined and used for political dirty tricks.
In a statement Facebook said that in April 2015 Dr Aleksandr Kogan, a lecturer at Cambridge University's Department of Psychology, published an app on its site called thisisyourdigitallife, and said it was "a research app used by psychologists." But instead of just using it for research, Facebook claims it was used for commercial purposes by Cambridge Analytica and others.
“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,” the statement reads.
The kicker’s in the last bit of that. Unless users had their Facebook privacy settings locked down the app slurped not only the 270,000 consenting users but all their friends as well - over 50 million people according to Christopher Wylie, a former researcher director at CA, who had a copy of the data set.
Facebook is peeved that the data was collected under an academic license and then sold commercially. Dr Kogan has no comment at time of publication, but CA has said it was misled about the data’s legality under British law when it worked with Kogan’s company Global Science Research (GSR) in 2014.
“When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook’s terms of service, Cambridge Analytica deleted all data received from GSR,” CA said in a statement.
“No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.”
Facebook knew about the incident in 2015 and sought assurances from all concerned that the data had been deleted. What has prompted Friday’s suspension of Cambridge Analytica was Wylie going public to various media outlets with some extraordinary claims about how the data was used.
Down the rabbit hole
According to Wylie the Facebook data was used to build up detailed profiles of the social and political views of around 30 million US voters. Once their preferences had been cataloged, Cambridge Analytica determined what types of emotional and visual messages would sway their views and then spammed their social media fields with professionally produced, carefully crafted misinformation.
Wylie was an early employee of Cambridge Analytica and claims the firm’s flamboyant old-Etonian CEO Alexander Nix sold former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon on the technology. The way Wylie tells it, Bannon, who at the time was editor of the right-wing website Breitbart, wanted to use Cambridge Analytica’s technology to change the very culture of America.
“Steve wanted weapons for his culture war,” Wylie told The Observer. “We offered him a way to accomplish what he wanted to do which was change the culture of America.” You can see the full interview below:
Bannon needed money to do this, and Wylie claims it came from Robert Mercer, the billionaire hedge fund manager and former IBM fellow who is known for throwing millions in funding at right-wing causes, including Breitbart.
Wylie claims he and Nix travelled to pitch Mercer on the plan in New York and sold him on the idea. Mercer pumped US$15m into Cambridge Analytica, Bannon became the company's vice president, and Nix celebrated by slicing the top off a champagne bottle with a sabre that he keeps in the office, Wylie said.
There was only one problem - the software didn’t work. So Cambridge Analytica, in the time honored tradition of Bill Gates’ first IBM operating system, went out and bought better software for peanuts. Documents Wylie took with him after he left the company in mid-2014 show it paid GSR a little under £1m ($1.39m) for the data and the means to use it.
“What Kogan offered us was way cheaper, way faster, and of a quality that nothing matched,” he said. In a few months the profiles of over 50 million Facebook users had been slurped and fed into Cambridge Analytica’s new and improved algorithms. “I was naive and made a big mistake", Wylie said.
Last month Nix denied Cambridge Analytica had ever used Facebook data for political purposes to the UK's Culture Media and Sport select committee. Wylie claims this was a lie and while it wasn’t explicitly stated, everyone at CA knew where the data had come from.
“It was an instance of If you don’t ask questions then you won’t get an answer that you don’t like,” he said.
In light of Wylie’s claims the UK Information Commissioner's Office has announced that it will open an investigation into the affair. CA is already being quizzed as to its involvement in Britain's Brexit referendum, so it looks like Nix will be back to Parliament soon for another grilling.
“We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used,” said the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
“We are continuing to invoke all of our powers and are pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry. Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously".
Wylie said he quit the company in mid-2014, telling Channel 4 News “I don’t want to work for the alt-right.”
He set up a similar firm called Eunoia Technologies to do more ethical marketing, taking a copy of the data with him, and has since had legal issues with CA But he insisted he wasn’t out for revenge.
Mr. Wylie is a former contractor for, not a founder of CA. He is the subject of restraining undertakings to prevent misuse of the company's intellectual property. 4/8— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) March 17, 2018
“If it was revenge I could have done this years ago,” he said. And if I wanted to recreate Cambridge Analytica I should have just stayed. But I didn’t, I chose to leave.”
You can watch the full interview, complete with somewhat cliched shots of Wylie using a laptop on an artfully lit pavement and looking moody, here:
He claims to have deleted the data before being formally asked to do so by Facebook in 2016, a year after the misuse was discovered by the social media firm. All he had to do was fill in a form saying he had deleted and Facebook were satisfied with that.