Cambridge Analytica, a data mining and analysis firm associated with the Trump campaign, has been accused of a Facebook data breach. The company has alleged links to a number of election campaigns across the globe. Facebook has been under increasing scrutiny due to reports of influence campaigns that affected the 2016 US elections.
Cambridge Analytica is a private company founded in 2013. It uses data mining (processes that extract patterns and knowledge from big data), and data analysis “to change audience behaviour”. Alexander Nix is the Chief Executive of the company. Other names linked to Cambridge Analytica include Robert Mercer, conservative American billionaire, and Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist for President Trump.
Based out of London, the company has offices in the United States, Brazil, and Malaysia. Cambridge Analytica was revealed to have partnered with Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s election campaigns. According to records, the Trump campaign paid the firm over $6 million.
In May 2017 it was reported that Facebook was a key influencer in the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential elections and the Brexit vote. Those in charge of these digital campaigns believe that the social network was decisive in both wins. Last September, Facebook admitted to finding approximately $100,000 worth of ads connected to Russia. Russia allegedly played a role in flooding social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter with fake news stories depicting Hillary Clinton negatively. In recent years, the social media in general has come under scrutiny for hate and terrorist propaganda, influence campaigns, the presence of bots, and the proliferation of “fake news” ahead of elections.
Last year, it was announced that the UK Information Commissioner’s Office was “Conducting a wide assessment of the data-protection risk arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes.” It alleged that Cambridge Analytica used personal data to promote the agenda of pro-Brexit campaign group, Leave.EU.
At the time, Facebook officials said, “Our investigation to date has not uncovered anything that suggests wrongdoing with respect to Cambridge Analytica’s work on the Leave and Trump campaigns.”
On Friday, Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica, and Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan, from the website. Kogan has been accused of selling personal user data to the company in a breach of Facebook’s terms of service. Kogan’s app, called thisisyourdigitallife, received personal data from Facebook users and their friends, a total of 50 million individuals.
Cambridge Anlytica uses personal data acquired from a number of sources, including Facebook, to create micro-targeting advertisements designed to influence opinions. In a recent exposé by UK’s Channel News 4, it was revealed that revealed that Cambridge Analytica has been involved in a number of political campaigns across the world. High ranking officials were caught on tape claiming that they do “a lot more” than just investigation, alluding to blackmail and using sex workers to create scandal. Cambridge Analytica CEO Nix also told an undercover investigator that he used a number of British and Israeli companies to carry out his work.
Whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, who worked with Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, said, “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
According to media reports, Facebook has known about the breach since 2015. The company asked Kogan to delete the data, but did not follow up. Facebook also failed to inform its users of the data breach.
“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,” Facebook deputy legal counsel Paul Grewal said. “Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do.”
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has yet to respond to allegations, despite being called upon by US and UK officials. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar asked Zuckerberg to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and explain "what Facebook knew about misusing data from 50 million Americans in order to target political advertising and manipulate voters." On Monday, Facebook shares fell by 6.8%, resulting in a loss of $37 billion.
Cambridge Analytica claims that it did not violate any of Facebook’s policies. “Cambridge Analytica only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly. Our robust data protection policies comply with US, international, European Union, and national regulations,” it said. The company added that none of the data from the incident was used for President Trump’s campaign. Cambridge Analytica also denied the allegations made by Channel 4, claiming misrepresentation. “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever,” it said in a statement released on Monday.
On Tuesday, UK officials stated that they were seeking a warrant to investigate Cambridge Analytica’s London office.
Our assessment is that this incident demonstrates the potential for firms to weaponise, exploit, and manipulate data. Elections are particularly vulnerable to these methods. As technology advances, governments must update legislation to address concerns that emerge. We believe that Trump’s association with Cambridge Analytica may add another black mark on his controversial presidential campaign. This incident is also a severe blow to Facebook’s brand reputation.