A simple guide to untangling the Cambridge Analytica data scandal

29 Mar 2018959 Views

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From Christopher Wylie to Peter Thiel, we’ve unpicked the complex web of people and organisations mixed up in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The Cambridge Analytica revelations have sent shockwaves around the world, affecting the share price and public perception of Facebook, as well as creating a general sense of unease among the public in terms of their personal data.

It is a story with many players, from former Trump advisors to psychologists and a Canadian whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, at the very kernel of it all. Here’s your guide to the names to know as the story continues to unfold.

The companies and organisations

Cambridge Analytica

A firm that specialises in what it calls ‘behavioural microtargeting’, Cambridge Analytica was created by billionaire Robert Mercer and former Trump associate Steve Bannon, who became its vice-president. It promises customers detailed insights into the behaviour of consumers or voters. It was founded in 2013, as an offshoot of the SCL group. The company is under fire for allegedly using data obtained by Global Science Research (GSR) from Facebook profiles to influence political events in the US and UK.

SCL

SCL is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, a company founded by Eton-educated businessman Nigel Oakes and former Cambridge Analytica CEO, Alexander Nix. The company was founded in 1993 as Strategic Communication Laboratories.

Global Science Research (GSR)

Aleksandr Kogan’s company GSR developed the personality quiz that harvested the data of millions of Facebook users, which was then passed to Cambridge Analytica.

AggregateIQ (AIQ)

A Canadian company with links to Cambridge Analytica, AIQ was involved in the Vote Leave campaign, receiving money from the former and another organisation known as BeLeave, as well as Veterans For Britain and the DUP in Northern Ireland. Christopher Wylie alleges it is a satellite business set up to support Cambridge Analytica.

Vote Leave

The Vote Leave campaign was the main lobby group for Britain to exit the EU and it relied heavily on online ad placement and data consultancy services from AIQ. AIQ also received payment from BeLeave for its services, money former volunteer Shahmir Sanni said was still controlled by Vote Leave – which would mean the campaign breached spending limits.

Palantir

The secretive big data firm co-founded by Peter Thiel has also been embroiled in this scandal. Wylie said a UK-based Palantir employee worked with Cambridge Analytica, allegedly gaining access to the dataset of 50m Facebook users obtained by GSR in 2014.

BeLeave

BeLeave is the supposedly independent pro-Brexit campaigning organisation to which whistleblower Shahmir Sanni said Vote Leave donated hundreds of thousands of pounds ­– money that was apparently channelled into AIQ.

Eunoia

A business established by Christopher Wylie in 2014, Eunoia had access to the same vast dataset as Cambridge Analytica. The company then pitched former Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, on microtargeting tools that could be used to win the election.

The people

Alexander Nix

The now-ousted former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix was the subject of a Channel 4 News operation, which saw him boast about the company’s use of underhanded tricks to interfere in the democratic process. He said that the company had set up proxy organisations to feed untraceable messages on to social media and claimed credit for the successful election of Trump to office.

Aleksandr Kogan

Aleksandr Kogan is a Moldovan researcher and data scientist at Cambridge University whose company – Global Science Research (GSR) – built a quiz app that exposed the vulnerability in Facebook’s API, which in turn allowed it to collect data from the friends of those who took the quiz. This data was then passed on to Cambridge Analytica, who assured Kogan the process was above board. He told BBC Radio 4 that he was being used as a scapegoat by both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.

Christopher Wylie

A former contractor with Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie was the man who blew the whistle on the mass harvesting of data from millions of Facebook user profiles – data which had been obtained in violation of Facebook’s policy from Kogan’s company, Global Science Research.

Shahmir Sanni

Shahmir Sanni is a former volunteer with the UK Vote Leave organisation. A pro-Brexit, self-described Eurosceptic, Sanni spoke to journalist Carole Cadwalladr about apparent links between the Vote Leave team and data firm AIQ. He said that Stephen Parkinson, former head of the Vote Leave campaign’s grassroots organisation, was involved in funnelling money into a youth wing called BeLeave, while still directing how the money was spent. Sanni acted as treasurer and secretary of BeLeave.

Stephen Parkinson

Stephen Parkinson is Theresa May’s current political secretary and former Vote Leave figurehead, who hit headlines for outing Sanni as gay in a Downing Street statement. Sanni and Parkinson had been in a relationship and the latter publicly outed Sanni when he mentioned that fact. Sanni, coming from a conservative Pakistani background, described his family having to take “protective measures” on the back of the news.

Darren Grimes

The former head of the BeLeave group for young Brexiters, Darren Grimes is the subject of a UK Electoral Commission investigation into breaches of spending limits by Vote Leave. A young fashion student from Durham, he co-founded BeLeave, the organisation that received a donation which was allegedly funnelled by Vote Leave directly to AIQ. Sanni said that he and Grimes were directed by Parkinson and that neither got the full story behind the financial wranglings.

Carole Cadwalladr

Carole Cadwalladr is a British journalist who has been instrumental in the coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. She worked on the story for The Guardian and The Observer over a period of more than a year, helping to uncover the dramatic machinations behind the scenes of some of the most explosive political changes of our time.

Robert Mercer

A prominent conservative donor, Mercer and his daughter Rebekah have funded organisations such as the Media Research Center, Citizens United and Breitbart News. A hedge-fund billionaire, Mercer was Cambridge Analytica’s primary investor.

Steve Bannon

Perhaps best known as US president Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon was the executive chair of alt-right news network Breitbart. He was also vice-president of Cambridge Analytica but has distanced himself from the “dirty tricks” apparently employed by the company.

Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel is the CEO of Palantir and the founder of PayPal. Thiel is a noted conservative and supporter of Trump. Thiel incorporated Palantir in 2003 and the company was originally backed by the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel.

The jargon

Data Use Policy

Facebook’s Data Use Policy permitted Kogan to pull data, but solely for academic purposes. In 2015, reports emerged about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data to aid the Ted Cruz presidential nomination campaign, but Facebook only took action in August 2016, writing a letter to Wylie telling him that the data had been illicitly obtained and that “GSR was not authorised to share or sell it”. CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the company’s handling of the situation as a “failure of basic responsibility”.

Micro-targeting

Micro-targeting is a niche marketing strategy, which involves the use of data mining techniques to create market or audience segments or clusters. It is often employed by election campaigns to identify and target small groups in the hope of influencing their decisions. Cambridge Analytica’s business model was built on the practice. Wylie has denied claims the technique is ineffective.

Graph API

Facebook’s Graph API – the primary way for apps to read and write to the platform’s social graph – allowed developers to build apps that harvested information from both the user of the app and their Facebook friends until April 2015. Kogan used this loophole to harvest the data of millions of users in his work at GSR.

Data mining

Data mining is the practice of searching for patterns or anomalies within large datasets with a view to predicting outcomes, increase revenues and reduce risks, among other things. Cambridge Analytica allegedly mined the Facebook data from GSR to influence the US election outcome.

Ellen Tannam is a writer covering all manner of business and tech subjects

editorial@siliconrepublic.com