LONDON • Britain's data protection authority is seeking an urgent court warrant to enter the London headquarters of political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica as part of an investigation into allegations that the company retained information on millions of Facebook users without their consent.
The firm was also caught in a months-long undercover sting boasting about entrapping politicians using honey traps and running fake news campaigns to sway elections in countries around the world.
"I think we should all be shocked by this," British Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told Channel 4.
In a series of meetings at London hotels between last November and January this year, all of which were secretly filmed by Channel 4 News, the firm's CEO Alexander Nix and other executives boasted that Cambridge Analytica employs front companies and former spies on behalf of political clients. A reporter posed as a "fixer" for a wealthy Sri Lankan family that wanted to help politicians they favoured.
Mr Nix was caught on film saying the firm could send an attractive woman to seduce a rival candidate and secretly videotape the encounter, or send someone posing as a wealthy land developer to pass a bribe. "We have a long history of working behind the scenes," he said.
In an encounter last December at the Berkeley hotel in London, another Cambridge executive, Mr Mark Turnbull, said the information that is uncovered through such clandestine work is then put "into the bloodstream to the Internet".
"Then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again, over time, to watch it take shape," he added. "It has to happen without anyone thinking, 'That is propaganda.' Because the moment you think 'that is propaganda', the next question is, 'Who has put that out?' "
About Cambridge Analytica
WHAT IS CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA?
Cambridge Analytica (CA) is a data analysis firm which claims to “use data to change audience behaviour”. It offers services to businesses and political parties, and claims to be able to combine predictive analytics, behavioural sciences and data-driven advertising technology to equip clients with the necessary data and insights to drive campaigns.
CA says it has data on 220 million Americans and has worked on campaigns in the United States and other countries. According to The Guardian, the firm collects data from a wide range of sources, including social media platforms such as Facebook, and its own polling.
It was set up in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Group, a government and military contractor. CA was created initially with a focus on US elections, with US$15 million (S$19.8 million) in backing from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer and a name chosen by the future Trump White House adviser Stephen Bannon.
According to its website, CA has offices in New York, Washington, London, Brazil and Malaysia.
WHY IS IT IN THE NEWS?
The New York Times and The Guardian reported last Saturday that CA harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook users to develop techniques to support Mr Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.
After the reports broke, US and British lawmakers demanded that Facebook explain how the firm was able to harvest personal information without the social network alerting users.
In response, Facebook has suspended CA after finding that data privacy policies had been violated. The move means the firm and its parent group SCL cannot buy advertisements or administer pages belonging to clients.
In the latest revelation, Britain’s Channel 4 News reported on Monday, based on secretly recorded video, that CA secretly stage-managed Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns in the hotly contested 2013 and 2017 elections. CA has denied the report.
WHAT IS IT ACCUSED OF?
The Observer said CA used the data from the Facebook users, taken without authorisation in early 2014, to build a software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.
It quoted whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, who helped set up the firm and worked with an academic at Cambridge University to obtain the data, as saying the system could profile individual voters to target them with personalised political advertisements.
The more than 50 million profiles represented about a third of active North American Facebook users, and nearly a quarter of potential US voters, at the time, The Observer said.
The New York Times said interviews with half a dozen former CA employees and contractors, and a review of e-mails and documents, revealed CA not only relied on private Facebook data, but also still possesses most or all of it.
The Observer said the data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan separately from his work at Cambridge University.
Through Dr Kogan’s company Global Science Research, in collaboration with CA, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use, The Observer said.
However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong, The Observer added.
It said Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it from being sold or used for advertising.
Facebook said it was pressing CA for answers, after getting assurances from the firm in 2015 that it had deleted all data. The social media giant has also hired forensic auditors from the firm Stroz Friedberg to help.
While Facebook investigates, it said it has acted against CA, SCL, Dr Kogan and Mr Wylie after receiving reports that they did not delete information about Facebook users that had been inappropriately shared.
WHAT ARE THE REPERCUSSIONS CLOSER TO HOME?
CA was mentioned by a security expert last week at a public hearing by Singapore’s parliamentary Select Committee that is looking into tackling deliberate online falsehoods.
Dr Shashi Jayakumar of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies warned that Singapore’s close neighbours may already be seeing disinformation tactics being deployed internally. Those tactics, he said, could well be turned on Singapore if relations were to fray.
Dr Shashi said the firm has a presence in Malaysia, where it is thought to have been hired “by people involved in the coming election”.
SOURCES: REUTERS, NYTIMES, THE GUARDIAN, BBC
In a number of the exchanges, Mr Turnbull stresses the ability of Cambridge Analytica to play on people's "hopes and fears". "Our job is to get, is to drop the bucket farther down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really, deep-seated underlying fears, concerns," he appeared to say.
The Channel 4 footage was broadcast on Monday, two days after a whistle-blower said the controversial political consultancy hired by United States President Donald Trump improperly accessed information on 50 million Facebook users to sway public opinion.
Created in 2013, Cambridge Analytica markets itself as a source of consumer research, targeted advertising and other data-related services to both political and corporate clients. It has built models that translate the data it harvests into personality profiles for every American adult.
According to the New York Times, it was launched with US$15 million (S$19.8 million) in backing from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer and a name chosen by the then future Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon.
Cambridge Analytica said in a statement that the Channel 4 report "is edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business".
The company said it was the undercover reporter who had raised the idea of entrapping politicians, and that the executives had been trying to assess his intent.
It has also denied charges that it inappropriately harvested data on Facebook users as part of the services it provided to Mr Trump's presidential campaign. It said "personality-targeted advertising was not carried out for this client either".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST