Controversial data analytics firm Cambridge Analytics has been hit with an emergency data seizure order following an extraordinary series of events Monday night that revolved around a TV undercover expose.
Following a day in which the company became the focus on attention online, in print, and in Parliament and Congress for its unethical use of user data, senior executives from the firm were then shown on camera boasting about the use of dark methods, including honey traps, fake news and sub-contracting with ex-spies to entrap individuals.
Those revelations – filmed during an undercover investigation by Channel 4 in the UK – came as the controversial company was already in the news after it was revealed it had secretly grabbed the personal details of over 50 million Facebook users and used the data to sell voter targeting services. The whole segment can be seen here:
Following the segment on those secret recordings, UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she would seek a warrant on Tuesday forcing Cambridge Analytica to hand over relevant data, after she said the company had refused to respond sufficiently to earlier requests.
Adding to a sense of drama, as Denham was on television saying she would apply for the warrant, a Channel 4 reporter posted outside the company’s headquarters reported that a team from Facebook was inside the building ensuring that their purloined data had been deleted.
That series of events sparked one senior politician, live on air, to outline his concern that the company could be deleting incriminating data as they were talking. Soon after, other journalists and politicians expressed their dismay at the two-day lead-time that a company that has just been shown to be unscrupulous and may have committed criminal acts was being given to delete any evidence of wrongdoing.
Here we come
Less than an hour after the program aired, the authorities announced they had received a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s offices that very night.
As to the undercover investigation, Channel 4’s reporters posed as Sri Lankan clients interested in paying the company to help their candidates in upcoming elections. Over the course of a series of meetings in London a series of senior executives outlined an increasingly disturbing array of services they would be willing to provide.
At an initial meeting with its managing director Mark Turnbull and chief data officer Dr Alex Tayler the pair talked about their infamous data analytics and profiling services as a way to identify potential swing voters.
But Turnbull also suggested that the company could provide “intelligence gathering” through “relationships and partnerships we have with specialist organizations”, and said the company could provide information on a political opposition’s secrets and strategies.
Such shadowy tactics were again offered at a subsequent meeting, with Turnbull saying Cambridge Analytica could “contract under a different name, or as a different entity” so no trace of the company’s involvement could be found.
He then appeared to prove that ability to hide in the shadows by discussing the company’s work in Kenya. Despite publicly claiming that it had nothing to do with elections in Kenya, Turnbull was caught on tape boasting about the significant role the company had played.
“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written their manifesto… messaging… just about every element of his campaign,” he boasted.
Turnbull stressed however that it was “not in the business of fake news, lying, making stuff up, not in the business of entrapment.”
That ethical line appeared to disappear however when the undercover journalists met with Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix.
Nix was caught on film outlining a series of extremely dubious and many cases illegal scenarios for dealing with political opponents. They included bribing officials and candidates – “we can have a wealthy developer come in and offer a large amount of money to a candidate – for land, for example” – and film the transaction in order to expose them as corrupt.
He also suggested that the company could arrange for a honey-trap – sending young women to operate a sex sting – while stressing that he was “just giving examples of what can be done, what has been done.”
He also appeared to embrace the idea of creating and promoting fake news – an extremely sensitive topics given the evidence that fake news was used extensively in the US presidential elections in 2016 – noting that “it doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be believed.”
In response to what appeared to be clear evidence that Cambridge Analytica was prepared to carry out dirty tricks campaigns, the company said that its executives made the suggestions as a tactical ploy to see if the potential client was ethical.
The company also claimed that it “grave concerns” about the client, implying that it would not do business with him. But, as a member of the Channel 4 investigation team pointed out soon after, the company had been in contact with their team for months after the filming and had kept asking about their “impending partnership.”
The company said in a statement: “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes, or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever,” adding that it “routinely undertakes conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions.”
That explanation does not seem to be going down well with the authorities. As well as being accused of misleading a UK parliamentary select committee, there are now calls for Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to be hauled in front of committees in both UK Parliament and US Congress to explain their behavior.
Senator Ron Wyden has sent a Facebook a list of questions [PDF] about its relationship with Cambridge Analytica and its policies, included a pointed reference to an agreement the social media giant reached with the FTC in 2011 over how it protected its users’ privacy. ®