The data firm that powered Trump's 2016 digital campaign has come under a great deal of suspicion because no one knew exactly how the company acquired its data, but now we know.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that Cambridge Analytica, the company once overseen by Trump's former campaign executive and senior adviser Steve Bannon, acquired the personal information of tens of millions of unwitting Facebook users.
The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.
There's been plenty of speculation that Cambridge Analytica had help from the Russians and that appears to have been at least partially correct.
A former employee-turned-whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, identified the researcher that Cambridge paid for access to Facebook data as a Russian-American.
“This was a scam — and a fraud,” Paul Grewal, a vice president and deputy general counsel at the social network, said in a statement to The Times earlier on Friday. He added that the company was suspending Cambridge Analytica, Mr. Wylie and the researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic, from Facebook. “We will take whatever steps are required to see that the data in question is deleted once and for all — and take action against all offending parties,” Mr. Grewal said.
Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, and other officials had repeatedly denied obtaining or using Facebook data, most recently during a parliamentary hearing last month. But in a statement to The Times, the company acknowledged that it had acquired the data, though it blamed Mr. Kogan for violating Facebook’s rules and said it had deleted the information as soon as it learned of the problem two years ago.
I can't say this is why I'm not on Facebook because I deleted my account in 2010 for non-political reasons, but it is certainly a reason why I will never rejoin the social network.
Facebook has known about this breach, which involved Mr. Kogan harvesting data under false pretenses and selling it off, for years. Facebook has known about it for years and yet has never come clean until forced to by The New York Times, The Observer, and The Guardian which each reported segments of this story over the weekend.
And this is just the latest world-altering lapse of ethics at Facebook, isn't it? Facebook's entire business evolved to sell micro-targeted ads using the kind of information that has also been exploited by foreign governments to influence the thinking of American voters. Facebook has tailored their entire platform to sell influence over the minds of its users, whether its their need to buy consumer products or vote against their own interests.
Facebook downplayed foreign interference in the 2016 election for more than a year before finally coming clean and identifying scores of fake accounts and ads traced back to Moscow. Facebook learned that the Trump campaign was using data stolen from millions of users all the way back in 2016 and we're just now hearing about it.
With all of that said, here's some good news: special prosecutor Robert Mueller knows everything.
Congressional investigators have questioned Mr. Nix about the company’s role in the Trump campaign. And the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has demanded the emails of Cambridge Analytica employees who worked for the Trump team as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the election.
While the substance of Mr. Mueller’s interest is a closely guarded secret, documents viewed by The Times indicate that the firm’s British affiliate claims to have worked in Russia and Ukraine. And the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, disclosed in October that Mr. Nix had reached out to him during the campaign in hopes of obtaining private emails belonging to Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
This is a major piece of the 2016 puzzle and from Trump's data to Hillary's emails, it all involves theft and fraud.