As part of an in-depth investigation into the role big data company Cambridge Analytica played in influencing the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the presidential elections in the United States, The Guardian’s Observer magazine has published the story of whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica that devised the behavioral analysis software used by the company says, "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."
The datamining company in question, Cambridge Analytica, was created in 2013 as an offshoot of parent company SCL Group, formerly known as Strategic Communication Laboratories. Cambridge Analytica was originally conceived to be involved in American politics, but has also been involved in over 200 elections around the world, analyzing data harvested from social media and online surveys, using the information to target individual voters with personalized ads, in an attempt to influence their political choices.
Having initially cut its teeth during the 2014 midterm elections, Cambridge Analytica became involved in the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries, backing then-presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, of whom Robert Mercer was a major supporter. At the time, CA boasted that they had collected "up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans," according to their website. After Cruz’s presidential bid fell through, Cambridge Analytica’s services were directed at backing Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, and it was during the campaign that CA purchased personal information that was obtained from Facebook users by a company called Global Science Research (GSR). GSR had harvested the information through a survey app called "thisismydigitallife"; at the conclusion of the survey, the app prompted users to allow the app to access their Facebook profiles, and also to the profiles of their online friends. Ultimately, 320,000 people consented to allow the app access to their profiles, in turn enabling the app to access the accounts of an average of 160 other unwitting users per respondent, quickly snowballing into a stockpile of personal information on over 50 million Facebook users.
"Facebook could see it was happening," said Wylie. "Their security protocols were triggered because [GSR owner Dr. Aleksandr] 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’." Wylie is currently cooperating with authorities in both the UK and US, with investigations into both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook currently underway. He has handed over a substantial paper trail on the issue that provides damning evidence for authorities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although Facebook’s deal with GSR didn’t authorize the sale of the information to a third party, Facebook apparently didn’t put much effort into correcting the offense. In August of 2016, two years after the information was gathered, Facebook’s lawyers sent Cambridge Analytica an email telling them to delete the data. "I already had," explains Wylie. "But literally all I had to do was tick a box and sign it and send it back, and that was it. Facebook made zero effort to get the data back."
Cambridge Analytica also made a pitch in 2014 to sell its services to Lukoil, a Russian oil company with ties to Vladimir Putin. Lukoil has been known to have been used to promote Russian influence in Europe, including providing payoffs to pro-Russian Czech Republic president Miloš Zeman. CA’s presentation had little to do with promoting energy products, but rather focused on "election disruption techniques", including Cambridge Analytica’s role in disrupting the 2007 elections in Nigeria, where the company spread rumors that the "election would be rigged", confusing targeted voters.