Facebook stock is tumbling and could be heading for its worst day since September of 2012. The reason: a damning report on how it was rather blasé about some potentially illegal data collection through Cambridge Analytica, a firm that the Trump campaign used for its 2016 campaign. No, this isn’t about Russian collusion, though in the coming weeks, they could be included in that narrative that’s engulfed the news media. The Guardian published a lengthy piece on the man who was the data firm’s brainchild, Christopher Wylie, who has come forward as a whistleblower, detailing the possibly felonious and sketchy deeds that were done to collect data to construct profiles on 230 million Americans.
Wylie said he’s responsible for creating a data Frankenstein monster that became “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindf**k tool”. It discussed Wylie’s meteoric rise in the data realm. How his unimpressive performance in school was not indicative of his sharp wit in this field. Self-taught in coding, he was working for the leader of the opposition in his native Canada by his late teens. While Wylie was rising through the ranks of data-driven Canadian politics, the publication noted a separate storyline by Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell of the Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Center: “studying personality by quantifying it.” Using five metrics—“Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism”—this was where you read about how data from social media is used to construct profiles. In this case, how those who did not like Israel, as indicated by the pages they liked on Facebook, and its link to these people’s affinity for Nike sneakers and KitKat bars.
The defense industry saw the potential of this research, as did Wylie. The Guardian noted how things could have been different if Wylie had taken a job with Deloitte, who tendered him an offer that he rejected, or if the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom took his presentation about such research seriously prior to the 2015 election. They weren’t convinced. In the end, the Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out that year. Yet, it was this connection with UK’s Liberal Democrats that introduced Wylie to SCL Group, who had a subsidiary SCL Elections, which became Cambridge Analytica. The publication spoke with Wylie for over a year for hours at a time.
Wylie described his meeting with Steve Bannon and the Mercers, how they loved his work, and wished to use it. Yet, this wasn’t the first election Cambridge has been pegged as influencing. Brexit was the first test for this data group that is now under the microscope in both the U.S. and the U.K. Yet, there’s also another angle to this, which is that Facebook might be as forthcoming about the nature of this data mining, as suggested by the social media giant’s director of policy in the UK, Simon Milner (via The Guardian):
Last month, Facebook’s UK director of policy, Simon Milner, told British MPs on a select committee inquiry into fake news, chaired by Conservative MP Damian Collins, that Cambridge Analytica did not have Facebook data. The official Hansard extract reads:
Christian Matheson (MP for Chester): “Have you ever passed any user information over to Cambridge Analytica or any of its associated companies?”
Simon Milner: “No.”
Matheson: “But they do hold a large chunk of Facebook’s user data, don’t they?”
Milner: “No. 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.”
Two weeks later, on 27 February, as part of the same parliamentary inquiry, Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane, asked Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix: “Does any of the data come from Facebook?” Nix replied: “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.”
And through it all, Wylie and I, plus a handful of editors and a small, international group of academics and researchers, have known that – at least in 2014 – that certainly wasn’t the case, because Wylie has the paper trail. In our first phone call, he told me he had the receipts, invoices, emails, legal letters – records that showed how, between June and August 2014, the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users had been harvested. Most damning of all, he had a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately.
So, what was the operation? It was grounded in a personality quiz created by Global Science Research (GSR) that took the data of the user and all of the users friends as well. Facebook provided all of this, which is at the core of their public relations disaster. GSR then gave this information to Cambridge, which Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix’s denied in testimony to parliament. Wylie has documents showing otherwise:
When Nix was interviewed by MPs last month, Damian Collins asked him:
“Does any of your data come from Global Science Research company?”
Nix: “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.”
Collins: “They have not supplied you with data or information?”
Collins: “Your datasets are not based on information you have received from them?”
Collins: “At all?”
Nix: “At all.”
The problem with Nix’s response to Collins is that Wylie has a copy of an executed contract, dated 4 June 2014, which confirms that SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, entered into a commercial arrangement with a company called Global Science Research (GSR), owned by Cambridge-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, specifically premised on the harvesting and processing of Facebook data, so that it could be matched to personality traits and voter rolls.
He has receipts showing that Cambridge Analytica spent $7m to amass this data, about $1m of it with GSR. He has the bank records and wire transfers. Emails reveal Wylie first negotiated with Michal Kosinski, one of the co-authors of the original myPersonality research paper, to use the myPersonality database. But when negotiations broke down, another psychologist, Aleksandr Kogan, offered a solution that many of his colleagues considered unethical. He offered to replicate Kosinski and Stilwell’s research and cut them out of the deal. For Wylie it seemed a perfect solution. “Kosinski was asking for $500,000 for the IP but Kogan said he could replicate it and just harvest his own set of data.” (Kosinski says the fee was to fund further research.)
Kogan then set up GSR to do the work, and proposed to Wylie they use the data to set up an interdisciplinary institute working across the social sciences. “What happened to that idea,” I ask Wylie. “It never happened. I don’t know why. That’s one of the things that upsets me the most.”
What the email correspondence between Cambridge Analytica employees and Kogan shows is that Kogan had collected millions of profiles in a matter of weeks. But neither Wylie nor anyone else at Cambridge Analytica had checked that it was legal. It certainly wasn’t authorised. Kogan did have permission to pull Facebook data, but for academic purposes only. What’s more, under British data protection laws, it’s illegal for personal data to be sold to a third party without consent.
“Facebook could see it was happening,” says Wylie. “Their security protocols were triggered because 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’.”
Kogan maintains that everything he did was legal and he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.
Now, separate from Wylie’s interview is The Guardian’s inference that Russian collusion is embedded in their section about Lukoil approaching Cambridge. Also, as a friendly reminder, there is zero evidence to suggest there was any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign:
There are other dramatic documents in Wylie’s stash, including a pitch made by Cambridge Analytica to Lukoil, Russia’s second biggest oil producer. In an email dated 17 July 2014, about the US presidential primaries, Nix wrote to Wylie: “We have been asked to write a memo to Lukoil (the Russian oil and gas company) to explain to them how our services are going to apply to the petroleum business. Nix said that “they understand behavioural microtargeting in the context of elections” but that they were “failing to make the connection between voters and their consumers”. The work, he said, would be “shared with the CEO of the business”, a former Soviet oil minister and associate of Putin, Vagit Alekperov.
“It didn’t make any sense to me,” says Wylie. “I didn’t understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?”
Mueller’s investigation traces the first stages of the Russian operation to disrupt the 2016 US election back to 2014, when the Russian state made what appears to be its first concerted efforts to harness the power of America’s social media platforms, including Facebook. And it was in late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented the Russian oil company with an outline of its datasets, capabilities and methodology. The presentation had little to do with “consumers”. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques. The first slide illustrates how a “rumour campaign” spread fear in the 2007 Nigerian election – in which the company worked – by spreading the idea that the “election would be rigged”. The final slide, branded with Lukoil’s logo and that of SCL Group and SCL Elections, headlines its “deliverables”: “psychographic messaging”.
Lukoil is a private company, but its CEO, Alekperov, answers to Putin, and it’s been used as a vehicle of Russian influence in Europe and elsewhere – including in the Czech Republic, where in 2016 it was revealed that an adviser to the strongly pro-Russian Czech president was being paid by the company.
And just like the Russian collusion allegations themselves, the publication admits that there is zero evidence that Cambridge actually did any work for Lukoil.
After it was all done, Wylie said he came to see Cambridge as a mercenary outfit, which was willing to work for anyone who would pay.
It’s all part of a large ongoing investigation, though one that shows how powerful social media platforms have become concerning not just human interaction, raising money for charitable causes, and spreading information, but one that could impact socioeconomic and geopolitical situations. Wait, didn’t the Obama campaign do this in 2012? Wylie learned from them before applying the knowledge on targeting to Canadian politics.
After the 2012 election, the Obama campaign's tech prowess was generally portrayed in reverential terms. Ethics of this mass data harvesting were not much discussed, because it resulted in an electoral outcome that much of the political class wanted https://t.co/Q5JV0JuWmo pic.twitter.com/TdRyX2FU2H— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) March 18, 2018
Some from the Left, who have been both amused and appalled by the neo-McCarthyite tendencies of liberals after Donald Trump’s 2016 win, noted how the Obama team was also engaged in shady data collection, even boasting that the knew the names of the 67 million+ voters who cast a ballot for the president in 2012. It’s a fair point, but one with a huge difference. The data collected by Team Obama was through their campaign site and their army of volunteers, which gained access to users and their friends, taking that information, and matching it with specific voter profiles. It’s still a bit sketchy, but very different than using an app—MyPersonality—to gather information on users and their friends and then use that information to influence them. There is nothing illegal about trying to change one person’s mind, but, as the Guardian noted, if data was obtained and then sold to a third party without consent for this purpose, it’s a violation of UK’s data protection laws. All apps on the social media site go through an approval process; MyPersonality was one of the most popular of the site. Facebook also had a dedicated representative to this account as well, which makes the whole defense of “I know nothing” regarding user data highly dubious. As of this afternoon, the company has lost some $40 billion.
Facebook has now banned Cambridge Analytica from using their platform.