Cambridge Analytica whistleblower: Russia may have accessed Facebook data of 87M Americans
Amid reports the data firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) is under investigation by the FBI and Department of Justice, a former research director turned whistleblower suggested the company engaged in voter suppression, "black ops" and coordinated its U.S. election operations with Russian government entities.
Much has been said about Cambridge Analytica's misuse of millions of Facebook users' data for sophisticated political targeting operations. On Wednesday, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed that massive dataset could have been "easily" shared with a Russian intelligence-linked company.
According to a Tuesday report by The New York Times, the FBI and Department of Justice appear to be in the "early stages" of an investigation into Cambridge Analytica. Federal investigators are reportedly looking into the company's business practices and financial dealings.
Investigations of CA and its parent company, SCL, are currently underway in Britain, Australia, Canada, Nigeria, Kenya and India.
Christopher Wylie indirectly confirmed the investigation of his former employer, Cambridge Analytica. Asked by reporters if he was cooperating with the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference, he replied, "I have been contacted by the FBI."
In his testimony, Wylie again confirmed cooperating with U.S. authorities, saying he had provided relevant documents and information. He added, "It should be made clear, I am not the target of these investigations."
Cambridge Analytica was asked to participate in the Wednesday hearing but after announcing bankruptcy and shutting its doors earlier this month declined the invitation.
HOW RUSSIA MAY HAVE ACCESSED THE DATA
In his testimony Wednesday, Wylie faced questions about Cambridge Analytica's numerous ties to Russian government entities, at one point suggesting the Facebook data of 87 million Americans may have been acquired by the Russians.
That massive data transfer may have been facilitated, knowingly or uknowingly by Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL. Nix's London-based company was known for providing "strategic communications" and had defense contracts, commercial engagements and political campaign operations around the globe.
Wylie described a "high level of engagement" between CA's executive, Alexander Nix and Lukoil, Russia's second largest oil company. Lukoil, which has known ties to Russian intelligence services, was sanctioned in 2017 in connection with the Russian annexation of Crimea.
According to Wylie's account, Nix was in "close contact" with Lukoil executives and in 2014 gave them a whitepaper written by Wylie outlining Cambridge Analytica's U.S. data mining and voter targeting project, which was reportedly of special interest.
Asked by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., if CA's dataset, with information on tens of millions of U.S. Facebook users was also shared with Lukoil, Wylie did not dismiss the possibility. He noted the information could have been "easily acquired" with or without CA's knowledge or consent.
"I can't say definitively, one way or the other, if these datasets did end up in Russia but what I can say is that it would have been very easy to facilitate that," Wylie said.
In their conversations with Nix, Lukoil executives were informed of "the scale of the data and the location of the data," Wylie said. "What was made known was that this data could have been easily acquired by something as simple as a keylogger on Dr. [Aleksandr] Kogan's computer when he was visiting Russia," he added.
Aleksandr Kogan was a researcher at Cambridge University and professor at Russia's St. Petersburg University and responsible for developing the Facebook quiz app that harvested thousands of datapoints from approximately 87 million unsuspecting Facebook users.
Around 2013, Kogan teamed up with Cambridge Analytica and gained access to the Facebook data. Facebook terminated its contract with Kogan in 2014 and in 2015 sent a letter requesting he delete the harvested data.
Facebook did not follow up and the user data, shared with Cambridge Analytica, was not deleted. Facebook officially suspended Cambridge Analytica's account in March 2018.
WIKILEAKS AND 'BLACK OPS'
Among Wylie's other concerns about SCL and Cambridge Analytica's tactics included the firm's so-called "black-ops" capabilities, which he said involved hackers breaking into computers to obtain intelligence or compromising material to use against opposition candidates.
"Some of the targets of these intelligence operations are currently heads of state in various countries," Wylie asserted, saying his former employer hired former members of Russian and Israeli intelligence services for these "special IT services."
In addition, CA also recruited at least two individuals who were "closely associated" with WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, according to Wylie.
These individuals were reportedly chosen because of their closeness to WikiLeaks, which was deemed a "hostile intelligence service," by former CIA director Mike Pompeo.
The company has been accused of using a playbook that resembles the WikiLeaks dumping of hacked emails during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, notably in the 2015 Nigerian presidential election. SCL and Cambridge Analytica denied allegations of hacking.
Among the allegations Wylie made against his former employer is that it used social media data and complex algorithms to try to suppress the vote. The effort was reportedly done under the banner of "voter disengagement," and was cited by Wylie as one of the main reasons he left CA in July 2014.
At that time, Cambridge Analytica was a relatively new company. It was set up as a U.S. subsidiary of the London-based SCL.
In 2013, SCL's CEO, Alexander Nix, a British citizen, partnered with billionaire conservative donors Robert and Rebecca Mercer and then-Breitbart editor in chief Steve Bannon to set up Cambridge Analytica, or SCL USA. The firm worked on at least 44 congressional campaigns in 2014 and in 2016 managed the data and voter targeting services for President Donald Trump's campaign.
Wylie suggested this arrangement violated U.S. campaign laws and the U.K.-based parent company to handle "all" of CA's clients. The company reportedly received memos from lawyers warning against using foreign nationals in its U.S. political operations, but it "installed a non-American as its CEO [Nix] and embedded non-U.S. citizens in American campaigns," Wylie said.
Steve Bannon, who went on to serve as President Trump's chief strategist, was the company's vice president during Wylie's tenure and was reportedly very interested in how social media data could be used to identify, target and "exploit" certain subsets of the population, Wylie reported.
Much of Cambridge Analytica's political targeting was informed by the work of Stanford University behavioral researcher Michael Kosinski. Among other things, Kosinski found it was possible to accurately determine a person's sexual orientation, political party and race by analyzing 68 Facebook "likes." Deeper analysis of "likes" resulted in predictive powers that led some to conclude Facebook knows you better than your family.
According to Wylie, Cambridge Analytica's targeting operations were "designed to activate some of the worst characteristics in people, such as neuroticism, paranoia and racial biases."
Before he left the company, there were "the beginnings of discussions" about how to use the profiling data for "voter disengagement," Wylie told lawmakers. This activity, he said, "was intended to focus on African-American voters."
Asked by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., if one of Bannon's goals was "to suppress voting or discourage certain individuals in the United States from voting," Wylie said that was his understanding.
Questioned further about whether "voter suppression" was "a service that U.S. clients could request in their contracts" with the company, Wylie referenced documents indicating clients had made that request.
There is room for doubt about the accuracy of Wylie's claims, according to testimony from Eitan Hersh, an expert in civic engagement and voter targeting at Tufts University.
"Persuasion is very, very hard," Hersh said, asserting CA's claims about its targeting accuracy seem "implausible."
"From everything I have seen publicly disclosed about Cambridge Analytica, I am skeptical of the idea that its strategies of voter persuasion were unusually effective or contributed meaningfully to the election outcome," he asserted.
It is not yet clear whether Wylie's allegations are being investigated by the FBI and Department of Justice. The FBI is reportedly coordinating with British authorities in the U.K. investigation of Cambridge Analytica.
According to reports, Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation is looking at Cambridge Analytica's data practices, finances and other activities.