Facebook admits data firm working for Trump scammed millions of U.S. voters

Cambridge Analytica, already under investigation by Mueller for links to Russia, ran "a scam and a fraud."

Facebook headquarters sign decorated for Veteran's Day in Menlo Park, California, November 10, 2017. CREDIT: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.
Facebook headquarters sign decorated for Veteran's Day in Menlo Park, California, November 10, 2017. CREDIT: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

In an unprecedented move, Facebook announced it is suspending the political data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, from the social media site.

Cambridge Analytica said it helped the Trump campaign pull off its narrow win in key swing states by psychologically profiling millions of voters using data from Facebook, so those voters could be microtargeted with messages tailored and tested to persuade them. Now it turns out that much of that data was obtained fraudulently.

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The firm “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission,” according to a major New York Times investigation published Saturday, “making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history.”

Cambridge Analytica, which is backed by billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer and has former Trump strategist Steve Bannon on its board, is already under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller for possible connections to Russian interference in the election. It’s also under investigation by the UK Parliament for potential violations of data privacy and claims it did illegal work for the pro-Brexit campaign.

Now Facebook VP and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal has accused the firm of running “a scam and a fraud,” as he described it to the New York Times.

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“In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr. Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica,” Grewal, a former federal judge, explained in his statement.

Moreover, when Facebook learned in 2015 that Kogan, a Russian-American academic, had broken their rules, “we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.”

But that certification appears to have been a lie. The Times reported Saturday: “Interviews with a half-dozen former employees and contractors, and a review of the firm’s emails and documents, have revealed that Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of the trove.” It added that “copies of the data still remain beyond Facebook’s control,” but the paper was able to view “a set of raw data from the profiles Cambridge Analytica obtained.”

The bottom line of the Times investigation, which it conducted with The Observer of London, is chilling: The data theft “allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate” for the purposes of electing the Trump campaign, which paid the firm millions of dollars in the last several months of the 2016 campaign.

Not only was that data used for microtargeting voters, but by tracking the response to those messages in real time on social media, the firm could advise the campaign where Trump should visit and what words would resonate most with voters in the region.

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In fact, Breitbart executive board chair Steve Bannon, who became CEO of the Trump campaign in mid-August 2016, told Bloomberg in late October of that year, “I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine. Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”

The Facebook statement and New York Times investigations add important new information in our understanding of the shady role Cambridge Analytica played in the campaign. We also know that disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn had been an advisor to the firm, and as the Wall Street Journal reported in October, its CEO Alexander Nix had “reached out to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to offer help organizing the Hillary Clinton-related emails the website was releasing,”

The full story of Cambridge’s role is unlikely to be known until Robert Mueller finishes his investigation.