Election 2016

Trump’s Data Firm Stole Info On 50 Million Facebook Users

JM Ashby
Written by JM Ashby

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.

  • muselet

    At this point, anyone who thinks Facebook is a benign entity is a fool.

    –alopecia

  • Badgerite

    Republicans always cheat. Any way they can. It is their electoral MO.

  • It really pisses me off that my data may have helped Trump commit Treason. I’m pretty f*cking sure that was NOT in Facebook’s fine print when I clicked “Accept”.

  • Username1016

    It makes you despair. How can we possibly fight back against this awful creature that’s got its tentacles into EVERYTHING? Article after article detailing how fucked we all are, and nobody proposes an action plan! And would we even KNOW about any of this, if old Dummi Bear in the White House hadn’t fired James Comey???

    • Badgerite

      Despair is not an option in a Democracy. Stand up and stand together and vote with some fffing knowledge and intelligence. And for God’s sake, organize.
      If there is one thing these Parkland kids have shown is that we have our destiny in our own hands if we so chose. Did I mention……amazing kids.

      • Username1016

        Oh, I have BEEN. I have spent the last YEAR calling and writing legislators, going on marches, attending postcard-writing parties, donating to causes, voting in my local special elections, etc. etc. etc. I have done SOMETHING every single week, and I’m still doing it. I’m even going to DC on Saturday to support the Parkland kids. But honestly, I’m starting to burn out. No matter how much effort you put into fighting it, it seems to metastasize. A few more visible results would be incredibly heartening…

        • Badgerite

          I didn’t really mean you personally. I meant it as a general, “buck up folks and get to it” kind of thing. Everyone has their own practical realities to deal with. I don’t think the effort has been a waste of time or energy. ( And as an American citizen, I thank you so much for that effort.) But I think there has been progress.
          Both in terms of what has become known about the 2016 elections which, I’m sure, was supposed to never see the light of day and in terms of the elections results of late. And the country has not even started paying, except maybe in terms of rising insurance premiums, for the ghastly and ultimately disastrous policies that the GOP have managed to get in place. Now, the trump Monster, given the GOP’s ‘very concerned’ response to every outrageous illegality he commits and his rather obvious obedient subsequious behavior toward Putin, feels unleashed. God save the Republic. Lord knows, the gop gives no indication that they will bother to.

  • ninjaf

    This is the part that is so concerning for me (emhpasis mine):

    Then a chance meeting brought Mr. Nix into contact with Mr. Bannon, the Breitbart News firebrand who would later become a Trump campaign and White House adviser, and with Mr. Mercer, one of the richest men on earth.

    Mr. Nix and his colleagues courted Mr. Mercer, who believed a sophisticated data company could make him a kingmaker in Republican politics, and his daughter Rebekah, who shared his conservative views.

    An examination by The New York Times and The Observer of London reveals how Cambridge Analytica’s drive to bring to market a potentially powerful new weapon put the firm — and wealthy conservative investors seeking to reshape politics — under scrutiny from investigators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

    Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge and worked there until late 2014, said of its leaders: “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.”

    “They want to fight a culture war in America,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”

    When some of the richest people on the planet decide that their views are more important than anyone else’s (let’s not forget about the Koch brothers and their aggressive anti-environment agenda), democracy dies unless money is removed from the equation. We have to get money out of politics or it will be the death knell for our country, without hyperbole.

    • This, many, many times!

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  • Aynwrong

    Am I wrong to assume that no matter how much we discover about this treason (and that is what it is) that those who did this will never be held accountable? That it might not even be illegal?

    • ninjaf

      Yeah, it’s just so easy to read this and feel like the odds are definitely not in our favor.

      • Aynwrong

        Exactly. It just feels like the bad guys always get a pass.

    • JMAshby

      This is bigger than the American election now. Cambridge has now been implicated across the world. I don’t know if that makes it more likely that someone will be held accountable, but they’re on the hot seat.