Cambridge Analytica suspends CEO over Facebook data scandal

Britain is investigating whether Facebook did enough to protect data after a whistleblower said a London-based political consultancy hired by Donald Trump improperly accessed information on 50 million Facebook users to sway public opinion.
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix leaves his offices through the back door in London on March 20, 2018.
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix leaves his offices through the back door in London on March 20, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm with ties to President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, suspended its chief executive, Alexander Nix, on Tuesday (March 20), amid a furore over the access it gained to private information on more than 50 million Facebook users.

The decision came after a television broadcast in which Nix was recorded suggesting unseemly practices to influence foreign elections.

The company, founded by Stephen Bannon and Robert Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor who has put at least US$15 million (S$20 million) into it, offered tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behaviour.

So-called psychographic modelling techniques, which were built in part with the data harvested from Facebook, underpinned the company's work for the Trump campaign in 2016. Nix once called the practice "our secret sauce", though some have questioned its effectiveness.

In a joint investigation published online on Saturday, The New York Times and The Observer of London detailed the company's acquisition and use of the Facebook data.

In the latest segment of an investigation aired on Tuesday by Britain’s Channel 4 News, Nix describes questionable practices used to influence foreign elections and said his firm did all the research, analytics and targeting of voters for Trump’s digital and TV campaigns. He also boasts he met Trump when he was the Republican presidential candidate “many times.”

Nix’s comments “do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation,” Cambridge Analytica said in a statement on Tuesday.  

Brad Parscale, the 2016 Trump campaign’s main digital adviser who dealt regularly with Cambridge Analytica, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Nix’s claims.

Nix also acknowledged his company used a self-destructing email server to communicate with clients in order to eliminate evidence of their contact.  “You send them and after they’ve been read, two hours later, they disappear,”

Nix was recorded telling an undercover Channel 4 News reporter in a private meeting. “There’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing.”

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and now senior adviser, oversaw the Trump campaign’s digital operations. One former Trump adviser said Kushner brought Cambridge Analytica into the 2016 campaign effort. Kushner’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comments.

On Monday, Channel 4 aired a video of Cambridge Analytica executives offering to entrap politicians.

Sitting in a hotel bar, Nix suggested ideas for a prospective client looking for help in a foreign election. The firm could send an attractive woman to seduce a rival candidate and secretly videotape the encounter, Nix said, or send someone posing as a wealthy land developer to pass a bribe.

"We have a long history of working behind the scenes," Nix said.

The prospective client, though, was actually a reporter from Channel 4 News in Britain, and the encounter was secretly filmed as part of a months-long investigation into Cambridge Analytica.

On Tuesday, Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons, called on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, to give evidence in the British Parliament, following the reports in The Times and British media.

In a letter, Collins said that previous answers from Facebook officials about the misuse of data had been "misleading" to the committee.

"It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process," said the letter adding: "I hope that this representative will be you."

 
 
 

The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday announced an investigation into whether Facebook violated an agreement on data privacy, after reports that information on 50 million of its users was improperly obtained by Cambridge Analytica.

The weekend's reports about the data misuse have prompted calls from lawmakers in Britain and the United States for renewed scrutiny of Facebook, and at least two US state prosecutors have said they are looking into the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica.

"In the view of the board, Mr Nix's recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation," the company said in a statement.

The company said it had asked Alexander Tayler, its chief data officer, "to serve as acting CEO while an independent investigation is launched to review those comments and allegations."

The company also said it had hired a lawyer, Julian Malins, "to lead this investigation, the findings of which the board will share publicly in due course."

It added: "The board will be monitoring the situation closely, working closely with Dr Tayler, to ensure that Cambridge Analytica, in all of its operations, represents the firm's values and delivers the highest-quality service to its clients."

Tayler trained as a chemical engineer and joined Cambridge Analytica in 2014 as its lead data scientist, according to his LinkedIn profile.