What Is Cambridge Analytica? Facebook Data Was Apparently Taken Without Users' Permission

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

When it comes to political campaigns, it's helpful to understand the people whose votes you're trying to win. Personal data can help strategists shape messaging and advertising so that the right potential voter views the most influential ads. And according to an investigation by The New York Times and The Observer, the Trump campaign turned to one such firm, a company called Cambridge Analytica. But what exactly is Cambridge Analytica? According to co-founder and former employee Christopher Wylie, it helps to develop "psychological warfare" techniques to advance Republican political agendas.

A significant portion of the joint investigation relies on interviews with Wylie, who left the firm in 2014. "Rules don't matter for them," Wylie described the company's leadership to the Times. "For them, this is a war, and it's all fair." In tweets, the company denies that Wylie was a co-founder, and instead describe him as a contractor.

"They want to fight a culture war in America," Wylie told reporters. "Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war."

Cambridge Analytica is reportedly under investigation for collecting personal data without first getting Facebook users' permission. The company claimed in a statement that they themselves did not mine any Facebook data. Instead, the statement says, they had contracted a separate group called Global Science Research — and Cambridge Analytica claims it believed the contracted company would follow Facebook's rules and receive consent from users.

In 2014, we contracted a company led by a seemingly reputable academic at an internationally-renowned institution to undertake a large scale research project in the United States. ... When it subsequently became clear that the data had not been obtained by GSR in line with Facebook's terms of service, Cambridge Analytica deleted all data received from GSR.

Cambridge Analytica is partly owned by billionaire Republican Robert Mercer, who invested $15 million in the company, the Times reported. Steve Bannon was Mercer's political adviser at the time, and according to the Times, Cambridge Analytica reportedly promised Bannon a new way to influence would-be voters. Mercer was reportedly interested in bolstering his influence on Republican politics. Forbes reports that Mercer spent $25 million in the 2016 election, alone.

But according the report, the company didn't yet have the information necessary to do so, which is why it turned to Facebook users. The Times reports that more than 50 Facebook million users were affected by the data harvesting.

After reports of the data harvesting began to circulate, Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica, Wylie, GSR researcher and academic Aleksandr Kogan, and Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL), the behavior research company behind Cambridge Analytica. "Protecting people's information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook," said Paul Grewal, Facebook Vice President and General Deputy Counsel, in a statement.

According to Grewal, Cambridge Anlaytica gained access to users' information through Kogan, a University of Cambridge neuroscience professor. Grewal says that while Kogan went through the proper channels to run an app through Facebook, he then took the data his app collected from users and passed that information along to Cambridge Analytica. Grewal said that Kogan had lied to Facebook and, in passing along the data, violated their platform policies.

Though Cambridge Analytica says it deleted information it obtained through GSR, an unnamed former employee told the Times that this was false. Reportedly, this person had seen large amounts of unencrypted Facebook data on the company's servers. (In a tweet, Cambridge Analytica said that such "'unnamed sources' are not familiar" with the company's databases.)

Several U.S. lawmakers have announced that they would like to further investigate Cambridge Analytica's actions. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey tweeted that her office was launching an investigation because she believes her state's residents deserve answers. Similarly, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said he wanted to see both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook testify before the Senate Commerce Committee "so that we can get to the bottom of these disturbing reports that may impact tens of millions of Americans."

Whether or not officials from either company will go before Congress is yet unclear, though Special Counsel Robert Mueller reportedly requested information from the company as part of his investigation into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. The company denies that any information obtained through GSR was used in their work for the Trump campaign.