Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly requested documents from the data-analytics company Cambridge Analytica as part of his investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. But what exactly is Cambridge Anayltica and what have they one to land on Mueller's radar? The company, which once boasted Steve Bannon as its vice president, is being accused of using data it illegally obtained from Facebook users to target voters on Donald Trump's behalf during the 2016 presidential election.
According to Bloomberg, billionaire Robert Mercer helped fund and launch Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of the British company SCL Group, in 2013. By 2016, the company was targeting U.S. voters for clientele that included the election campaigns of high-profile Republican candidates like Trump, Ted Cuz, and Ben Carson. According to the company's own website, "Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior."
But questions are now being raised about how Cambridge Analytica gathered the data it used in 2016. Recent reports allege the company illegally obtained personal information from Facebook users in early 2014 in order to create models for profiling voters for clients. Facebook has since suspended both SCL and Cambridge Analytica over concerns the companies had not actually deleted all of the data the social media network demanded they delete in 2015 when it first got wind of the violation.
"We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made," Facebook's Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said in a blog post published Friday. "We are suspending SCL/Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan from Facebook, pending further information."
According to Facebook, Dr. Aleksandr Kogan violated the social media network's Platform Policies when he passed data he'd gathered through his app "thisisyourdigitallife" — which used a Facebook Login — to Cambridge Analytica. Kogan's app was, according to Facebook, being billed to users as "a research app used by psychologists." It collected personal data from users as well as from users' friends.
However, in a statement released Saturday, Cambridge Analytica denied claims it had violated Facebook's terms of service and said it "deleted all data received from" the developer behind "thisisyourdigitallife." The company also claimed that no data obtained from Kogan's company had been used "as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign."
But Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who work with Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, has said the company did use the illegally obtained data. "We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles and built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons," Wylie told the Guardian. "That was the basis that the entire company was built on."
In a statement to the New York Times, Wylie also alleged the people running Cambridge Analytica wanted "to fight a culture war in America" and that the firm "was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war."
It's not completely clear what about Cambridge Analytica's work for the Trump campaign has drawn Mueller's interest. And there are certainly still a number of unanswered questions about how effective the firm's work for the Trump campaign might have been. But it is clear that data has power. Cambridge Analytica, like other data-analytics firms, seek to collect social media users' digital data in order to establish personality profiles. Those profiles are then used to target voters. Essentially, the more you know about the person you're trying to influence, the more you can tailor your messaging to them, thus making your message more effective.