Your Facebook Data, Cambridge Analytica, and Russia: Was There Collusion?

Ken AshfordCybersecurity, L'Affaire Russe, Social Media & Networking, Trump & Administration, Voter Suppression & Voter SecurityLeave a Comment

During an interview on TODAY this morning, Christopher Wylie, a former employee of U.K.-based data analytics company Cambridge Analytica, revealed the company worked with two key Trump campaign aides prior to President Donald Trump’s candidacy.

“Cambridge Analytica was meeting with Corey Lewandowski in 2015 before Trump had even announced and offering the services that I’m talking about right now,” Wiley said, referring to Trump’s first campaign manager.

Wiley also confirmed what a New York Times investigation revealed over the weekend, that Cambridge Analytica “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission…making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history.”

The data obtained through Facebook was used to microtarget specific voters in order to persuade them to vote for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

As Wylie described it Monday morning:

This data was used to create profiling algorithms that would allow us to explore mental vulnerabilities of people and then map out ways to inject information into different streams or channels of content online so that people started to see things that may or may not be true. This is a company that took fake news to the next level.

Not only was that data used for microtargeting voters, Wiley claimed, 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. In fact, Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Donald Trump and executive chairman of Breitbart News, told Bloomberg in late October of 2016, “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.”

Bannon previously served as Cambridge Analytica’s vice president before joining the Trump campaign.

Many of its methods were exposed in a recent piece from The Guardian that profiled Wylie, who along with consulting company Strategic Communication Laboratories (which is the parent to Cambridge Analytica) and University of Cambridge professor Dr. Aleksandr Kogan had their accounts suspended by Facebook on Friday night. Facebook is also looking into the ties between one of its employees, Joseph Chancellor, and Global Science Research, a company that helped Cambridge Analytica, according to CNN.

Cambridge Analytica, which is backed by billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer, 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 U.K. Parliament for potential violations of data privacy and claims it did illegal work for the pro-Brexit campaign.

Facebook, in an unprecedented move Saturday, moved to suspend Cambridge Analytica from the social media site following the bombshell reports about the data breach. 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 Times. However, he pushed back on claims of a data breach.

“The claim that this is a data breach is completely false,” Grewal said in a statement.

Wiley was also banned from Facebook this weekend.

One Facebook executive, Andrew Bosworth, took to Twitter to defend his company.

The full extent of Cambridge Analytica’s role in the controversy is unlikely to be known until Mueller completes his investigation.  But the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is looking into the matter.

Of note, Nancy LeTourneau at Washington Monthly reports that Cambridge Analtyica and Russian bots used the same strategy to suppress voter turnout —

What Mueller and his team of investigators will be interested in is whether or not there was a connection between this voter profiling with the kind of intrusion into social media he has already included in recent indictments of Russians.

One clue that might merely be coincidence is the timing. Here is what we learn from the indictment:

Starting at least in or around 2014, Defendants and their co-conspirators began to track and study groups on U.S. social media sites dedicated to U.S. politics and social issues. In order to gauge the performance of various groups on social media sites, the ORGANIZATION tracked certain metrics like the group’s size, the frequency of content placed by the group, and the level of audience engagement with that content, such as the average number of comments or responses to a post.

According to Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who is the main source for the article linked above, he met Steve Bannon in the fall of 2013 and by 2014 their work was underway.

But there is another confluence of events that is even more interesting. Back in October 2016, just days before the election, Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg did some reporting on the Trump campaign and the work of Cambridge Analytica in particular. Here is how they described their strategy at the time:

Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans…

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

Those Facebook “dark posts” seem to be a favorite tool used by Parscale and the Cambridge Analytica consultants. I’d bet that we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how those were used during the campaign. But compare the above to what the Mueller investigation included in their indictment of the Russian bots.

In or around the latter half of 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through their ORGANIZATION-controlled personas, began to encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.

In other words, in the final stages of the 2016 election, both the Trump campaign and the Russian bots engaged in a voter suppression strategy with core Clinton supporters. Is it possible that was merely a coincidence? You tell me.

No collusion???

The good news is that the spotlight is on this. CNN reports this about Aleksandr Kogan:

The data scientist who gathered information on millions of Americans for Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data firm that worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, says he would be happy to testify before Congress and speak to the FBI about the work he did for the company. Aleksandr Kogan made the remarks in an email he sent to colleagues at Cambridge University this weekend that was obtained by CNN.

“I’ve also seriously been asked if the FBI has reached out, if the two congressional committees in the United States have reached out, and if Parliament or any authorities in the UK have reached out. No one has—I suspect they realize I’m actually not a spy. Though if anyone does, I’d be more than happy to testify and speak candidly about the project,” he wrote in the email.

Kogan’s company provided data on millions of Americans to Cambridge Analytica beginning in 2014. The data was gathered through a personality test Facebook application built by Kogan. When Facebook users took the test they gave Kogan access to their data, including demographic information about them like names, locations, ages and genders, as well as their page “likes,” and some of their Facebook friends’ data.

Facebook says that Kogan told them he was gathering the data for academic purposes and that by providing the data to Cambridge Analytica he had breached Facebook policy. On Friday, Facebook suspended both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica from its platform. The suspension came ahead of reporting in The New York Times and The Observer in London on Saturday that alleged Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted the data when it was asked to do so by Facebook in 2015 — a claim Cambridge Analytica denies.

“It’s been honestly a surreal week,” Kogan wrote to his colleagues, “I’ve been asked quite seriously by reporters from the NY Times and the Guardian if I am a Russian spy. I really tried to explain that one seems just silly. If I am Russian spy, I am the world’s dumbest spy.”

Facebook has accused Kogan of lying about why he was collecting the data, a claim Kogan disputes in the email, writing, “we never claimed during the project that it was for academic research. In fact, we did our absolute best not to have the project have any entanglements with the University.”

I’m sure we’ll learn more.  And at least one guy is. Using British law, he is suing Cambridge Analytica to get information on… himself. What it is, how it was collected, etc.  See the pleading below:

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Wonder what he will find.

And finally, Channel 4 News, a British news program, went undercover as prospective clients to infiltrate Cambridge Analytica and gather evidence of some of the abuses of trust that the company was apparently perpetrating with this stolen data. That is scheduled to air in Englad at 7:00 pm GMT (or 3:00 pm EST, or about 13 minutes from now as I write this).

Both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have threatened lawsuits against Channel 4 News if they air this segment.  Channel 4 has decided to take the chance and go forward with this highly anticipated exposé.