Cambridge Analytica, the data research firm, has issued an extended statement explaining the types of data the firm used, and didn’t use, during the 2016 presidential election. The firm started working for the Trump campaign in June 2016. It has been under fire after revelations were made that it, along with another firm, Global Science Research, harvested data from the user accounts of roughly 50 million Facebook users in an unauthorized fashion.
The firm denies using Facebook data to build psychological profiles of users in order to influence their voting behavior. It said that it instead initially used its own commercial and political data licensed from vendors, and subsequently used voter files from the Republican National Committee, its own extensive polling data along with information from the Trump campaign, U.S. State political parties and commercial data from brokers.
Cambridge says it used the data to “identify ‘persuadable’ voters,” but claims their analytics operation was the same as that used by any political campaign, including both the Clinton and Obama campaigns. But, Cambridge says, with fewer resources and less data.
A whistleblower by the name of Christopher Wylie who worked for Cambridge Analytica at the time of the data breach, worked with a Cambridge University scientist to gather the information. “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,” Wylie said.
That scientist, an academic named Aleksandr Kogan built an app called thisisyourdigitallife to assist in the data recording. Wylie, Kogan, Global Science Research and Cambridge Analytica have all had their accounts suspended by Facebook in the wake of the revelations.
Cambridge Analytica has faced additional scrutiny however, because its parent company, London-based Strategic Communications Laboratories, was found to have bragged about interference-tactics in foreign elections in promotional materials published by the company.
According to marketing materials obtained by the BBC, the company claims to have organized rallies in Nigeria in 2007 in order to weaken political support for the opposition. They also claim to have taken advantage of ethnic tensions in Latvia in order to help their client during that country’s 2006 elections.
In 2010, the company says it coordinated an “ambitious campaign of political graffiti” in Trinidad and Tobago that “ostensibly came from the youth” so that their clients could “claim credit for listening to a ‘united youth’”.
The company stated that potential clients could contact SCL through “any British High Commission or Embassy” and that the company had received “List X” authorization, which means it had “government endorsed clearance to handle information protectively marked as ‘confidential’ and above.”
SCL was awarded British government contracts in 2008. Most of the activity described in the brochures seems to have taken place before then. The British Ministry of Defense confirms SLC was given List X authorization but that it was discontinued in 2013. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office denies that SCL could be contacted through British diplomatic outposts, and awareness of its foreign election interference activity.
Cambridge Analytica attempted to minimize the effect its data operation had on the 2016 presidential election, claiming that the success or failure of any campaign rests ultimately with the candidate themselves.
“Elections are won or lost by candidates, not data science. Data is important in modern campaigns for deciding how to allocate resources and for making advertising more efficient, but of course the candidate and their message ultimately needs to connect with the electorate,” their statement read.
Wylie, however, believes the stakes were even higher than the results of elections. “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair,” Wylie said of Cambridge Analytica’s founders. “They want to fight a culture war in America. Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war,” he added.