[Whistleblower describes how firm linked to former Trump adviser
Steve Bannon compiled user data to target American voters. How
Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms turned ‘likes’ into a political
tool] [https://portside.org/] 

 50 MILLION FACEBOOK PROFILES HARVESTED FOR CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA IN
MAJOR DATA BREACH   [https://portside.org/node/16778] 

 

 Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison 
 March 17, 2018
The Guardian
[https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election]


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 _ Whistleblower describes how firm linked to former Trump adviser
Steve Bannon compiled user data to target American voters. How
Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms turned ‘likes’ into a political
tool _ 

 Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower: 'We spent $1m harvesting millions
of Facebook profiles' – Click on still above to view video, The
Guardian 

 

The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election
team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook
[https://www.theguardian.com/technology/facebook] profiles of US
voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and
used them to build a powerful software program to predict and
influence choices at the ballot box.

A whistleblower has revealed to the _Observer_ how Cambridge
Analytica
[https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/cambridge-analytica] – a
company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed
at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal
information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a
system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target
them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to
obtain the data, told the _Observer_: “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.”

Documents seen by the _Observer_, and confirmed by a Facebook
statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that
information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at
the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to
recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million
individuals.

Cambridge Analytica: the key players

ALEXANDER NIX, CEO

An Old Etonian with a degree from Manchester University, Nix, 42,
worked as a financial analyst in Mexico and the UK before joining SCL,
a strategic communications firm, in 2003. From 2007 he took over the
company’s elections division, and claims to have worked on 260
campaigns globally. He set up Cambridge Analytica to work in America,
with investment from Robert Mercer. 

ALEKSANDR KOGAN, DATA MINER

Aleksandr Kogan was born in Moldova and lived in Moscow until the age
of seven, then moved with his family to the US, where he became a
naturalised citizen. He studied at the University of California,
Berkeley, and got his PhD at the University of Hong Kong before
joining Cambridge as a lecturer in psychology and expert in social
media psychometrics. He set up Global Science Research (GSR) to carry
out CA’s data research. While at Cambridge he accepted a position at
St Petersburg State University, and also took Russian government
grants for research. He changed his name to Spectre when he married,
but later reverted to Kogan.

STEVE BANNON, FORMER BOARD MEMBER

A former investment banker turned “alt-right” media
svengali, Steve Bannon
[https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/steve-bannon]was boss at website
Breitbart when he met Christopher Wylie and Nix and advised Robert
Mercer to invest in political data research by setting up CA. In
August 2016 he became Donald Trump’s campaign CEO. Bannon encouraged
the reality TV star to embrace the “populist, economic
nationalist” agenda that would carry him into the White House. That
earned Bannon the post of chief strategist to the president and for a
while he was arguably the second most powerful man in America. By
August 2017 his relationship with Trump had soured and he was out.

ROBERT MERCER, INVESTOR

Robert Mercer, 71, is a computer scientist and hedge fund billionaire,
who used his fortune to become one of the most influential men in US
politics as a top Republican donor. An AI expert, he made a fortune
with quantitative trading pioneers Renaissance Technologies, then
built a $60m war chest to back conservative causes by using an
offshore investment vehicle to avoid US tax. 

REBEKAH MERCER, INVESTOR

Rebekah Mercer has a maths degree from Stanford, and worked as a
trader, but her influence comes primarily from her father’s
billions. The fortysomething, the second of Mercer’s three
daughters, heads up the family foundation which channels money to
rightwing groups. The conservative mega‑donors backed Breitbart,
Bannon and, most influentially, poured millions into Trump’s
presidential campaign.

The _New York Times_ is reporting
[https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html] that
copies of the data harvested for Cambridge Analytica could still be
found online; its reporting team had viewed some of the raw data.

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife,
built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at
Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research
(GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of
thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to
have their data collected for academic use.

The _New York Times_ is reporting
[https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html] that
copies of the data harvested for Cambridge Analytica could still be
found online; its reporting team had viewed some of the raw data.

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife,
built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at
Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research
(GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of
thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to
have their data collected for academic use.

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. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only
collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app
and barred it being sold on or used for advertising. The discovery of
the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put,
raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting
voters in the US presidential election. It comes only weeks
after indictments of 13 Russians
[https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/16/trump-mueller-russia-indictment-what-does-it-mean] by
the special counsel Robert Mueller which stated they had used the
platform to perpetrate “information warfare” against the US.

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are one focus of an inquiry into data
and politics by the British Information Commissioner’s Office.
Separately, the Electoral Commission is also investigating what role
Cambridge Analytica played in the EU referendum.

“We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may
have been illegally acquired and used,” said the information
commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “It’s part of our ongoing
investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes
which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns,
data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK are
using and analysing people’s personal information to micro-target
voters.”

On Friday, four days after the _Observer_ sought comment for this
story, but more than two years after the data breach was first
reported, Facebook announced
[https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/03/suspending-cambridge-analytica/] that
it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and Kogan from the platform,
pending further information over misuse of data. Separately,
Facebook’s external lawyers warned the _Observer_ it was making
“false and defamatory” allegations, and reserved Facebook’s
legal position.

The revelations provoked widespread outrage. The Massachusetts
Attorney General Maura Healey announced that the state would be
launching an investigation. “Residents deserve answers immediately
from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” she said on Twitter.

The Democratic senator Mark Warner said the harvesting of data on such
a vast scale for political targeting underlined the need for Congress
to improve controls. He has proposed an Honest Ads Act to regulate
online political advertising the same way as television, radio and
print. “This story is more evidence that the online political
advertising market is essentially the Wild West. Whether it’s
allowing Russians to purchase political ads, or extensive
micro-targeting based on ill-gotten user data, it’s clear that, left
unregulated, this market will continue to be prone to deception and
lacking in transparency,” he said.

Last month both Facebook and the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander
Nix, told a parliamentary inquiry on fake news: that the company did
not have or use private Facebook data.

Simon Milner, Facebook’s UK policy director, when asked if Cambridge
Analytica had Facebook data, told MPs: “They may have lots of data
but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who
are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data
that we have provided.”

Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, told the
inquiry: “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have
Facebook data.”

Wylie, a Canadian data analytics expert who worked with Cambridge
Analytica and Kogan to devise and implement the scheme, showed a
dossier of evidence about the data misuse to the _Observer_ which
appears to raise questions about their testimony. He has passed it to
the National Crime Agency’s cybercrime unit and the Information
Commissioner’s Office. It includes emails, invoices, contracts and
bank transfers that reveal more than 50 million profiles – mostly
belonging to registered US voters – were harvested from the site in
one of the largest-ever breaches of Facebook data. Facebook on Friday
said that it was also suspending Wylie from accessing the platform
while it carried out its investigation, despite his role as a
whistleblower.

At the time of the data breach, Wylie was a Cambridge Analytica
employee, but Facebook described him as working for Eunoia
Technologies, a firm he set up on his own after leaving his former
employer in late 2014.

The evidence Wylie supplied to UK and US authorities includes a letter
from Facebook’s own lawyers sent to him in August 2016, asking him
to destroy any data he held that had been collected by GSR, the
company set up by Kogan to harvest the profiles.

What are the Cambridge Analytica Files?

Working with a whistleblower who helped set up Cambridge Analytica,
the Observer and Guardian have seen documents and gathered eyewitness
reports that lift the lid on the data analytics firm that helped
Donald Trump to victory. The company is currently being investigated
on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a key subject in two inquiries in
the UK - by the Electoral Commission, into the firm's possible role in
the EU referendum and the Information Commissioner's Office, into data
analytics for political purposes - and one in the US, as part of
special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Trump-Russia collusion.

Read more from this series
[https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/cambridge-analytica-files]

That legal letter was sent several months after the _Guardian _first
reported the breach and days before it was officially announced that
Bannon was taking over as campaign manager for Trump and bringing
Cambridge Analytica with him.

“Because this data was obtained and used without permission, and
because GSR was not authorised to share or sell it to you, it cannot
be used legitimately in the future and must be deleted immediately,”
the letter said.

Facebook did not pursue a response when the letter initially went
unanswered for weeks because Wylie was travelling, nor did it follow
up with forensic checks on his computers or storage, he said.

“That to me was the most astonishing thing. They waited two years
and did absolutely nothing to check that the data was deleted. All
they asked me to do was tick a box on a form and post it back.”

Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a data protection specialist, who spearheaded the
investigative efforts into the tech giant, said: “Facebook has
denied and denied and denied this. It has misled MPs and congressional
investigators and it’s failed in its duties to respect the law.

“It has a legal obligation to inform regulators and individuals
about this data breach, and it hasn’t. It’s failed time and time
again to be open and transparent.”

We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of profiles. And built
models to exploit that and target their inner demons

Christopher Wylie

A majority of American states have laws requiring notification in some
cases of data breach, including California, where Facebook is based.

Facebook denies that the harvesting of tens of millions of profiles by
GSR and Cambridge Analytica was a data breach. It said in a statement
that Kogan “gained access to this information in a legitimate way
and through the proper channels” but “did not subsequently abide
by our rules” because he passed the information on to third parties.

Facebook said it removed the app in 2015 and required certification
from everyone with copies that the data had been destroyed, although
the letter to Wylie did not arrive until the second half of 2016.
“We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect
people’s information. We will take whatever steps are required to
see that this happens,” Paul Grewal, Facebook’s vice-president,
said in a statement. The company is now investigating reports that not
all data had been deleted.

Kogan, who has previously unreported links to a Russian university and
took Russian grants for research, had a licence from Facebook to
collect profile data, but it was for research purposes only. So when
he hoovered up information for the commercial venture, he was
violating the company’s terms. Kogan maintains everything he did was
legal, and says he had a “close working relationship” with
Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.

How the story unfolded

In December 2016, while researching the US presidential election,
Carole Cadwalladr came across data analytics company Cambridge
Analytica, whose secretive manner and chequered track record belied
its bland, academic-sounding name. 

Her initial investigations uncovered the role of American billionaire
Robert Mercer in the US election campaign: his strategic “war” on
mainstream media and his political campaign funding, some apparently
linked to Brexit. 

She found the first indications that Cambridge Analytica might have
used data processing methods that breached the Data Protection Act.
That article prompted Britain’s Electoral Commission and the
Information Commissioner’s Office to launch investigations whose
remits include Cambridge Analytica’s use of data and its possible
links to the Brexit
[https://www.theguardian.com/politics/eu-referendum] referendum.
These investigations are still continuing, as is a wider ICO inquiry
into the use of data in politics. 

While chasing the details and ramifications of complex manipulation of
both data and funding law, Cadwalladr came under increasing attacks,
both online and professionally, from key players. 

The Leave.EU campaign tweeted a doctored video that showed her being
violently assaulted, and the Russian embassy wrote to the Observer to
complain that her reporting was a “textbook example of bad
journalism”. 

But the growing profile of her reports also gave whistleblowers
confidence that they could trust her to not only understand their
stories, but retell them clearly for a wide audience. 

Her network of sources and contacts grew to include not only former
employees who regretted their work but academics, lawyers and others
concerned about the impact on democracy of tactics employed by
Cambridge Analytica and associates. 

Cambridge Analytica is now the subject of special prosecutor Robert
Mueller’s probing of the company’s role in Donald Trump’s
presidential election campaign. Investigations in the UK also remain
live.

The _Observer_ has seen a contract dated 4 June 2014, which confirms
SCL, an affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, entered into a commercial
arrangement with GSR, entirely premised on harvesting and processing
Facebook data. Cambridge Analytica spent nearly $1m on data
collection, which yielded more than 50 million individual profiles
that could be matched to electoral rolls. It then used the test
results and Facebook data to build an algorithm that could analyse
individual Facebook profiles and determine personality traits linked
to voting behaviour.

The algorithm and database together made a powerful political tool
[https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy].
It allowed a campaign to identify possible swing voters and craft
messages more likely to resonate.

“The ultimate product of the training set is creating a ‘gold
standard’ of understanding personality from Facebook profile
information,” the contract specifies. It promises to create a
database of 2 million “matched” profiles, identifiable and tied to
electoral registers, across 11 states, but with room to expand much
further.

At the time, more than 50 million profiles represented around a third
of active North American Facebook users, and nearly a quarter of
potential US voters. Yet when asked by MPs if any of his firm’s data
had come from GSR, Nix said: “We had a relationship with GSR. They
did some research for us back in 2014. That research proved to be
fruitless and so the answer is no.”

Cambridge Analytica said that its contract with GSR stipulated that
Kogan should seek informed consent for data collection and it had no
reason to believe he would not.

GSR was “led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally
renowned institution who made explicit contractual commitments to us
regarding its legal authority to license data to SCL Elections”, a
company spokesman said.

SCL Elections, an affiliate, worked with Facebook over the period to
ensure it was satisfied no terms had been “knowingly breached” and
provided a signed statement that all data and derivatives had been
deleted, he said. Cambridge Analytica also said none of the data was
used in the 2016 presidential election.

Steve Bannon’s lawyer said he had no comment because his client
“knows nothing about the claims being asserted”. He added: “The
first Mr Bannon heard of these reports was from media inquiries in the
past few days.” He directed inquires to Nix.

_Carole Cadwalladr grew up in Wales and is now a features writer for
the Observer. Her first novel, The Family Tree, was published in 2006_

_Help The Guardian deliver the independent journalism the world
needs. Support The Guardian. _

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[https://support.theguardian.com/us/contribute]_

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