LONDON: A whistleblower has revealed that the data analytics firm that worked with US President Donald Trump’s election team had harvested information from millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, and used that data to build a software programme that could allegedly predict and influence voting patterns.
In a report on Saturday (Mar 17), British newspaper The Guardian said that the whistleblower recounted how Cambridge Analytica used information obtained without consent in early 2014 to build a profiling system. The system was then used to target these Facebook users with personalised political advertisements.
The whistleblower is Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge Analytica and worked there until 2014.
Wylie, who worked with an academic at Cambridge University to obtain the data, told Guardian's sister paper 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 that the entire company was built on.”
According to the New York Times, information was harvested from more than 50 million users – a breach referred to as one of the largest data leaks in Facebook’s history. The newspaper also claims that copies of the raw data harvested for Cambridge Analytica can still be found online.
Cambridge Analytica rose to prominence as the firm that the pro-Brexit group “Leave.EU” hired for data gathering and audience-targeting.
The company is largely owned by the wealthy Robert Mercer, a major Trump supporter, according to US media reports. Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica was helmed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon, reported The Guardian.
On its website, the firm says it "provided the Donald J Trump for President campaign with the expertise and insights that helped win the White House".
VIOLATION OF DATA PRIVACY POLICIES
Facebook on Friday said it was suspending consulting firm Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) and its political data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica for violating data privacy policies.
The social media platform said in a statement that it suspended Cambridge Analytica and its parent group SCL after receiving reports that they did not delete information about Facebook users that had been inappropriately shared.
Cambridge Analytica was not immediately available for comment. Facebook did not mention the Trump campaign or any political campaigns in its statement, attributed to company Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal.
"We will take legal action if necessary to hold them responsible and accountable for any unlawful behavior," Facebook said, adding that it was continuing to investigate the claims.
Brad Parscale, who ran Trump's digital ad operation in 2016 and is his 2020 campaign manager, declined to comment on Friday.
In past interviews with Reuters, Parscale has said that Cambridge Analytica played a minor role as a contractor in the 2016 Trump campaign, and that the campaign used voter data from a Republican-affiliated organisation rather than Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook's Grewal said the company was taking the unusual step of announcing the suspension "given the public prominence" of Cambridge Analytica and its parent organisation.
The suspension means Cambridge Analytica and SCL cannot buy ads on the world's largest social media network or administer pages belonging to clients, Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice president, said in a Twitter post.
MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN
Trump’s campaign hired Cambridge Analytica in June 2016 and paid it more than US$6.2 million, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Cambridge Analytica says it uses "behavioural microtargeting", or combining analysis of people’s personalities with demographics, to predict and influence mass behavior. It says it has data on 220 million Americans, two-thirds of the US population.
It has worked on other campaigns in the United States and other countries, and it is funded by Robert Mercer, a prominent supporter of politically conservative groups.
Facebook in its statement described a rocky relationship with Cambridge Analytica and two individuals going back to 2015.
That year, Facebook said, it learned that University of Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan lied to the company and violated its policies by sharing data that he acquired with a so-called "research app" that used Facebook's login system.
Kogan was not immediately available for comment.
The app was downloaded by about 270,000 people. Facebook said that Kogan gained access to profile and other information "in a legitimate way" but "he did not subsequently abide by our rules" when he passed the data to SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Wylie, who had by then gone on to work for Eunoia Technologies. Eunoia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Facebook said it cut ties to Kogan's app when it learned of the violation in 2015, and asked for certification from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed.
Although all certified that they had destroyed the data, Facebook said that it received reports in the past several days that "not all data was deleted", prompting the suspension announced on Friday.