How Big Data, Big Marketing and Big Politics Turned 50 Million Americans into Lab Rats
Over the weekend, work by a company called Cambridge Analytica edged into the news, courtesy of a New York Times examination of how the company got hold of private data of 50 million U.S. Facebook users and turned the data into a psycho-political weapon for Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
While there may be little here overtly criminal outside of the question of possibly having hacked into Facebook, it immediately presented a fascinating look inside modern politics—complete with Russian links. The Times was working with the Observer of London and The Guardian, which presented a terrific insider’s view from Christopher Wylie, the company’s oddball founder. The detail and the sheer brashness of their work are telling.
Wylie went on television yesterday in a mea culpa apology for work he did for Cambridge Analytica. By the end of the day, a British television company released “hidden” videos it had captured with Cambridge’s leaders offering to sell its trickery to other political operations, including the one the TV station was pretending it was.
A Canadian, Wylie was 24 when he thought up the company as a data analytics company that would polish its brazenness in the Brexit election in Britain before accepting a huge investment from Robert Mercer, the New York political conservative and turned the company’s attention to Stephen K. Bannon, who joined the company, and the Trump campaign. Now legislators on both sides of the Atlantic want to know a lot more about how private Facebook information ended up in their hands, whether the result of a breach or actual participation by Facebook, and how Cambridge Analytica was able to politically weaponize the information to target would-be voters.
As The Guardian quotes Wylie, in 2014, he went to work for Bannon, then the executive chairman of the “alt-right” news network Breitbart, “to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology—information operations—then turn it on the U.S. electorate.”
It was Wylie who oversaw that effort, and who, by his own description, was among a handful of individuals who pursued threads that linked Brexit and Trump to Russians. Wylie’s story also outlines how Cambridge Analytica had “reached out” to WikiLeaks to help distribute Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails in 2016. It also discusses that Cambridge’s British parent company, SCL, has agreements in place with the State Department to develop personality information.
The effort by the three newspapers relied on documents and inside witnesses to the effort. It is likely to build a new path of investigation for Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Already, Congress members and Massachusetts’ attorney general are calling for hearings with Facebook leader Mark Zuckerberg, whose lawyers say Facebook never was hacked.
Again, let’s assert that all of this is very detailed, with different levels of sourcing, in which it is unclear what may have violated our communal sense of security as opposed to what has crossed criminal lines. But that is exactly why these easy, partisan calls either for immediate impeachment or to abandon the Mueller investigation defy the levels of complexity in all of these investigations.
It was Wylie who “came up with a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the U.S., and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles. And then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup. We ‘broke’ Facebook, he says, adding that he did it on behalf of Steve Bannon.
Asked whether he hacked Facebook, he said, “I’ll point out that I assumed it was entirely legal and above board.” Indeed, as things turned out, Facebook invited them in under a paid survey program, technically not a hack, but an unintended collection of data, for sure.
In more formal statements and inquiries, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica personnel have denied hacking into Facebook and questioned whether Cambridge still has Facebook data. Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix has said, “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data,” though that is at odds with other information and Wylie’s description. Between June and August 2014, the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users had been gathered. Wylie has a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers saying that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately. In any event, Facebook has known about this since 2015 and said nothing.
Among other things, Cambridge Analytica had on staff a data miner named Aleksandr Kogan, Russian born U.S. citizen. According to Wylie, it was Kogan, a professor at Cambridge University in Britain and St. Petersburg State University in Russia, who had the skills in the Brexit situation to duplicate the information from a paid personality survey that allowed them to find information from “friends,” and turned into a collection that reached millions, giving Cambridge Analytica its own big data set. Wylie’s account says Kogan obtained Facebook permission to draw on private information for research purposes only. Under British data protection laws, it’s illegal for personal data to be sold to a third party without consent.
“Facebook could see it was happening,” says Wylie. “Their security protocols were triggered because Kogan’s apps were pulling this enormous amount of data, but apparently Kogan told them it was for academic use. So, they were like, ‘Fine.’ ”
Kogan maintains that everything he did was legal and he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.
Cambridge Analytica had its data. This was the foundation of everything it did next—how it extracted psychological insights from the “seeders” and then built an algorithm to profile millions more, reported The Guardian. Wylie said, “Everything was built on the back of that data. The models, the algorithm. Everything. Why wouldn’t you use it in your biggest campaign ever?”
Wylie said that Cambridge Analytica pitched its services to other non-election businesses, including Lukoil, Russia’s second-biggest oil producer, which had interest in reaching international customers. It is reported that the Mueller investigation is pursuing this connection as an example of trying to reach U.S. voters rather than oil consumers. Like all big Russian companies, Lukoil has connections to newly reelected Russian president Vladimir Putin.
There is no evidence that Cambridge Analytica ever did any work for Lukoil. What these documents show, though, is that in 2014 one of Russia’s biggest companies was fully briefed on: Facebook, micro-targeting, data, election disruption, reported The Guardian.
For its part, Facebook has cut off Kogan, Wylie and others from Cambridge Analytica. But clearly, it faces a future of questions about security, the use of private data in political terms and its business model of selling advertising to targeted audiences.
None of this sounds like a specific U.S. crime (there may be civil penalties from outstanding consent degrees involving privacy) by Facebook or Cambridge Analytica or even the Trump campaign, but it is pretty interesting stuff about how rotten the digital persuasion techniques have become and how they have become fundamental to politics.