Cambridge Analytica: Five things to watch

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The British data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica is facing massive scrutiny.

Facebook late last week banned the company, saying it violated the platform’s policies by failing to delete data on 50 million of the social media giant’s users. The firm did work for President Trump’s 2016 campaign and is also alleged to have links to the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom. 


Facebook is also facing mounting pressure from lawmakers in Washington to explain how the firm was able to get its hands on the data.

Here are five things to watch as the controversy unfolds.

How much damage has Facebook’s reputation taken?

This is a big crisis for Facebook, which saw its stock fall 7 percent in trading on Monday.

The dip suggests that investors expect the Cambridge Analytica scandal to have a material impact on the company, including its reputation among consumers.

“On the consumer level, consumers are very concerned about what’s being collected,” said Michael Priem, CEO of the advertising firm Modern Impact.

He said it’s possible the controversy will highlight the kinds of information that Facebook has about its users.

Lawmakers suggested the news is another reason for Congress to step in.

“It’s clear these platforms can’t police themselves,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Sunday.

Republican Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) joined Klobuchar in sending a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking that he testify to Congress — a move that underlines a new level of skepticism about technology firms among lawmakers.

How might this be connected to Russia?

Cambridge Analytica had already attracted some scrutiny in Washington.

CEO Alexander Nix reached out to WikiLeaks before the 2016 election, according to a Daily Beast report in October. It said that Nix told a third party he contacted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange about helping to release emails that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had deleted from her private email server while secretary of State.

A spokesman for WikiLeaks confirmed to The Hill at the time that “a request for information from Cambridge Analytica was rejected,” but did not address the content of the interaction.

WikiLeaks went on to release hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. U.S. intelligence officials have tied the hacks to Russia’s broader effort to interfere in the election.

Cambridge Analytica has denied working for Russia.  

“We’ve never worked in Russia,” Nix told British Parliament in February. “As far as I’m aware, we’re never worked for a Russian company.”

But the latest news will lead to new scrutiny.

Cambridge Analytica is the American offshoot of a British company called SCL Group, which The New York Times reported Saturday had contact with Russian oil company Lukoil in 2014 and 2015.

Executives at the company were reportedly interested in the way data was used to target U.S. voters. Lukoil is among the Russian entities sanctioned by the United States over Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Moreover, the British researcher who harvested Facebook data on behalf of Cambridge Analytica is also said to have ties to Moscow.

British news outlet The Observer reported that the Cambridge University researcher, named Aleksandr Kogan, worked as an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University during the time he was harvesting the data for Cambridge Analytica. His work included accepting grants from the Kremlin to fund social media research, the Observer reported.

What does it mean for the Mueller probe?

The latest revelations could provide fodder for special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling investigation into Russian interference in the election, including whether there was coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

Mueller will almost certainly be interested in how the firm leveraged Facebook data, and whether any information may have been shared with Russia-linked individuals.

The new revelations about Cambridge come after Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian groups in an elaborate plot that involved using Facebook and other social media platforms to spread divisive political and social content to American audiences ahead of the election.

The Wall Street Journal reported in December that Mueller had requested that Cambridge Analytica turn over documents as part of his investigation.

People already ensnared in Mueller’s investigation also have ties to Cambridge Analytica.

Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who was reportedly interviewed by the special counsel’s office for 20 hours in February, once served on the firm’s board. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who Mueller charged with making false statements to the FBI, disclosed a brief advisory role with the data firm in an amended filing last summer.

The Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytics $5.9 million for data management services between 2015 and 2016, according to campaign finance records.

However, the campaign appeared to distance itself from the firm last year as the company attracted scrutiny over Nix’s WikiLeaks contacts, describing the Republican National Committee as its “main source for data analytics.”

What else are we going to learn about Cambridge Analytica?

Lawmakers have made it clear that they will demand much more information from Cambridge Analytica.

The House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) said he wants answers on the level of detail of the data that Cambridge Analytica had about Facebook users. He also wants to know whether this information was acquired illegally and whether the information was “abused” to help the Trump campaign or bolster the Brexit vote.

Facebook will also have to provide answers to Schiff on how it dealt with Cambridge Analytica, including information on why it “provided private user information to an academic, how they have informed users in advance of these kinds of data transfers, and whether it can demonstrate that this data has indeed been destroyed.”

The House Intelligence Committee had already requested documents from Cambridge Analytica and interviewed Nix in December as part of its investigation into Russian interference, which the Republican leaders are currently winding down despite backlash from Democrats.

Other lawmakers, including the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have also publicly said that they want more answers from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Could Cambridge Analytica have had a big effect on the election?

Experts say that the large swath of data Cambridge Analytica had would be highly valuable for targeting U.S. voters over Facebook.

“The potential of this data to have massive impact on the elections is huge if it was used to its fullest extent,” said Alan Rosenblatt, a partner at the digital strategy group Lake Research partners, which is aligned with Democrats.

Bert Huang, a computer science professor at Virginia Tech University, said the data could give Cambridge Analytica a significant leg up when it comes to targeting Facebook.

Even with such information, however, experts say it would be virtually impossible to measure the magnitude of Cambridge Analytica’s effect on the election.

“This is like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube,” Huang said.

“I don’t know how you would do it, and I don’t know how you would do it [even] if you had access to all of the data in the world.”

It remains unclear exactly how Cambridge Analytica used the information. On Monday, the firm pushed back on allegations of data misuse, saying in a statement that “his Facebook data was not used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump presidential campaign; personality targeted advertising was not carried out for this client either.”

Tags Adam Schiff Amy Klobuchar Cambridge Analytica Donald Trump Ed Markey Facebook Hillary Clinton John Kennedy Mark Warner Mark Zuckerberg Robert Mueller

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