NEWS
18/03/2018 11:08 GMT | Updated 19/03/2018 14:41 GMT

Explained: What Is Cambridge Analytica – And What Is It Accused Of Doing?

50 million-plus Facebook records are alleged to have been harvested.

A British data firm linked to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Britain’s exit from the EU has been suspended by Facebook amid allegations it harvested personal details from more than 50 million users.

The story broken by The New York TimesThe Observer and Channel 4 News has dominated headlines since Saturday, so who is the firm at the centre of it, what did they do with the information, and what happens now?

WHO IS CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA?

Cambridge Analytica played a key role in mapping out the behaviour of voters in the run-up to the 2016 US election and helped the Leave.EU campaign during the EU referendum campaign. That involvement led to The Observer last year accusing it of “hijacking” democracy.  

Trump’s presidential campaign paid millions of dollars to Cambridge Analytica, which was funded by the president’s billionaire donor Robert Mercer

Bryan Bedder via Getty Images
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, seen above speaking at the 2016 Concordia Summit in New York in 2016

In December, special counsel Robert Mueller called for company documents as part of his investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.

Cambridge Analytica combines data mining and analysis with strategic communication and was created in 2013 as an offshoot of British parent-company SCL Group (Strategic Communication Laboratories). Before working on Trump’s campaign, it assisted with Ted Cruz’s 2015 campaign. 

Cambridge Analytica continues to carry out political, governmental and military investigations and campaigns around the world and is now, according to the Washington Post, seeking US government contracts.

Rebecca Cook / Reuters
US President Donald Trump's campaign paid millions of dollars to Cambridge Analytica

WHAT IS IT ACCUSED OF DOING? 

Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have been passed personal data from Facebook apps without the consent of the individuals. 

Both Cambridge Analytica and SCL have been barred from Facebook because its operation violated company policies by obtaining personal data from its customers, Facebook said in a statement, adding that it believed the company had destroyed the information three years ago. 

The data was initially obtained through an app that promised to provide users with “personality predictions.”

To create those predictions, Cambridge Analytica harvested personal information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users, according to a joint investigation by The New York Times and The Observer.

HOW THE CONTROVERSY UNFOLDED

In 2015, Facebook learned that University of Cambridge professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan passed on data obtained through a Facebook app he launched called thisisyourdigitallife, the social media company’s vice president and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal said.

The app was downloaded by 270,000 people and Facebook claims Kogan handed over information on its users – which included details such as their likes and location – to Cambridge Analytica and others.

Kogan is also alleged to have been involved in this, using his company called Global Science Research (GSR), to accrue information.

Despite assurances at the time that the data had been destroyed, Facebook said it was informed in “recent days” that this had not happened.

The app was shutdown when Kogan’s violation was first discovered. 

WHAT WAS THE DATA?

Users’ private information - such as the cities they live in, preferred content and some details about friends - were initially accessed when they downloaded the ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ app. 

By downloading the app, users granted Kogan access not only to their information, but also data from their Facebook friends. 

HOW THE DATA WAS USED

GSR offered users a small amount of money to complete a survey on the condition they consented to share personal details through Facebook.

This, it is claimed, allowed researchers to build personality and psychological profiles on millions of users.

Cambridge Analytica could then tailor specific political adverts to small groups of people, already knowing what their likes and interests were, it is alleged.

Whistleblower Chris Wylie, a former research director at Cambridge Analytica, explained to Channel 4 News how the scheme worked:

“Imagine I go and ask you: I say, ‘Hey, if I give you a dollar, two dollars, could you fill up this survey for me, just do it on this app’, and you say, ‘Fine’.

“I don’t just capture what your responses are, I capture all of the information about you from Facebook, but also this app then crawls through your social network and captures all that data also.

“By you filling out my survey, I capture 300 records on average.

“And so that means that, all of a sudden, I only need to engage 50,000, 70,000, 100,000 people to get a really big data set really quickly, and it’s scaled really quickly.

“We were able to get upwards of 50 million-plus Facebook records in the span of a couple of months.”

He added that “almost none” of the individuals knew about how their data was used.

Wylie, who stopped working for the company in 2014, told The Observer that the company “built models to exploit what we knew” about Facebook users to “target their inner demons”.

“They want to fight a culture war in America,” Wylie told the Times, referring to Cambridge’s leadership. 

“Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”

WAS IT REALLY A DATA BREACH?

Facebook executive Andrew “Boz” Bosworth argued that the incident did not constitute a data “breach” because users voluntarily downloaded the app.

Friends of the app users, however, may not have been aware their information was being recorded.

At the time, obtaining users’ private information through the app conformed to guidelines for app developers, according to Facebook.

However Kogan violated Facebook policy when he turned the data over in 2015 to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Facebook said.

Kogan also provided data to Wylie, then of Eunoia Technologies, Inc, according to Facebook.

Wylie has also been suspended from Facebook. 

WHAT HAS CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA SAID

Cambridge Analytica said it was “quite obvious” Wylie “had a grudge to bear” and dismissed his accusations as “pure fantasy”. 

The company said it only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly. 

In response to its Facebook ban, Cambridge Analytica said it fully complied with the platform’s terms of services. 

“Cambridge Analytica​’s Commercial and Political divisions ​use social media platforms ​for outward marketing, delivering data-led and creative content to targeted audiences. They do not use or hold data from Facebook profiles​,” the company said. 

“No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.

“Cambridge Analytica only receives​ and use​s​ data that has been obtained legally and fairly. Our robust data protection policies comply with US, international, European Union​, and national regulations.”

HOW HAVE AUTHORITIES RESPONDED?

The Information Commissioner is to investigate the “circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used”. 

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said that will form part of an ongoing inquiry into the “use of data analytics for political purposes”.

In a statement she added:

It is important that the public are fully aware of how information is used and shared in modern political campaigns and the potential impact on their privacy.” Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham

Denham continued: “We are continuing to invoke all of our powers and are pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry. Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously”.