In December 2015, the Guardian revealed that Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign was using psychological profiles based on data harvested from tens of millions of Facebook users. The organisation that assembled the data was at the time described as a “little-known data company” called Cambridge Analytica, a name now synonymous with efforts to use Facebook data to try and influence election outcomes worldwide.
This week, Cambridge Analytica announced that it, along with SCL Elections, the UK entity owned by the former CEO Alexander Nix, was shutting down over mounting legal fees and what it described as a “siege of media coverage” that drove away “virtually all of the company’s customers and suppliers”. The company – which was created with an initial $15m investment from the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer – maintains it has done nothing wrong and has been killed by negative PR. No announcement has been made about the fate of the parent company, SCL Group, a UK defence contractor which has been in business for 30 years.
The beginning of the end for the data analytics firm was on Saturday 17 March, when the Observer and the New York Times published interviews with the whistleblower Christopher Wylie.
This followed more than a year’s worth of reporting on the company by the Observer. The first piece, in February last year, triggered two legal investigations, both of which are continuing: one by the Electoral Commission into what work the company did for Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign and whether it had been properly declared, and the other by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which also announced a wider inquiry into the use of data in politics.
Wylie detailed how the software program at the heart of Cambridge Analytica was created, and how the company collected the data of tens of millions of Facebook users for commercial use, in violation of the social media giant’s own rules.
“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,” he said.
By late 2015, Facebook found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale, but at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.
Cambridge Analytica went on to work for Donald Trump’s campaign, and its executives would later claim to undercover reporters that the company played a pivotal role in his victory.
Facebook attempted to dampen the impact of Wylie’s whistleblowing interviews by publishing its own mea culpa and banning Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from its platform, hours before publication but two years after the data breach was first reported.
It argued it had asked Cambridge Analytica to delete the Facebook data after the Guardian’s 2015 article and had taken the company’s word when it said it had done this.
When the stories came out they prompted international outrage, and made Cambridge Analytica an unlikely household name. And so started six weeks of pain for the firm.
The day after Wylie’s bombshell revelations, US congressional investigators from the house intelligence committee asked Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Nix, to testify before Congress. They also summoned Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to explain the data breach.
On Monday 19 March, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s data watchdog, requested a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s servers and ordered Facebook’s “digital forensics team”, which had gone to its…