Cambridge Analytica have worked on elections in North and South America, East Asia, Africa and Europe. They have been accused of swaying the EU referendum in the UK and of being a crucial factor in the election of Donald Trump as US president. Now, several senior officials at company have been filmed by undercover journalists bragging that their services go far beyond big data analytics and social media marketing.
"Cambridge Analytica has been in touch with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) since February 2017, when we hosted its team in our London office to provide total transparency on all the data we hold, its usage, and other aspects of our business. We have been fully compliant and proactive in our conversations with the ICO," the firm's Tuesday statement read.
According to the firm, it cooperated with the ICO "on multiple lines of enquiry" since early last year.
"On this point we have offered to share with the ICO all the information that it asked for and for the ICO to attend our office voluntarily, subject to our agreeing the scope of the inspection," the statement added.
Britain's Channel 4 carried out the four-month sting in late 2017 and early 2018, secretly filming Cambridge Analytica's CEO Alexander Nix, chief data office Dr Alex Tayler and managing director of CA Political Global Mark Turnbull. Channel 4's representative in these meetings posed as a Sri Lankan looking to employ the company in the country's elections.
The first part of their investigation found that during their work on the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica had harvested the data of 50 million facebook users. The man who blew the whistle — former Research Director Chris Wylie — has since been suspended from using Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram in retaliation for making the data breach public.
Sputnik spoke with the office of Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner who said:
"The issue of "friends" data being harvested when a Facebook user engaged with an app on Facebook was resolved by Facebook in May 2014 when access to friends data was restricted by a platform upgrade. This followed a 2012 recommendation by DPC Ireland on foot of its re-audit of Facebook Ireland in relation to access to friends data."
They added that:
"The issue of purported misuse of data by SCL/GSR/CA is incorporated in the investigation of the Information Commissioner's Office of political influencing… The Irish DPC is following up with Facebook Ireland in relation to what forms of active oversight of app developers and third parties that utilise their platform is in place with a view to ensuring it is effective."
Honey Traps and Bribery
In their meetings with Channel 4's ‘Sri Lankan fixer' however, Turnbull, Tayler and especially Nix made it clear that Cambridge Analytica can provide much more than massive data harvesting, analysis and promotion services. One of their methods apparently includes using sex workers as honey traps. In Nix's words they can "send some girls around to the candidate's house" and that Ukrainians are particularly effective because they, "are very beautiful, I find that works very well."
Another option is bribery of foreign officials, with Nix explaining that they can bribe a rival political candidate and use then use that to smear them, while covering up Cambridge Analytica's role. He told Channel 4's undercover agent:
"We'll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we'll have the whole thing recorded, we'll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the internet."
Sputnik spoke to political and intelligence commentator Wayne Madsen who pointed out similar instances of private entities being involved in dirty tricks and black operations. Madsen highlighted how, "General Motors tapped consumer advocate Ralph Nader's phone in an attempt to uncover salacious information and, when that failed, hired prostitutes in an attempt to catch him in a compromising situation."
Madsen also referred to the CIA's Operation Midnight Climax, which Agency documents confirm involved hiring prostitutes to ‘lure' unsuspecting citizens to CIA safe houses where they were experimented on with LSD. Madsen commented, "This operation included several contractors, including the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and the Human Ecology Foundation."
'A Master of Disguise'
Channel 4's investigation shows that in Cambridge Analytica's world there is little distinction between political dirty tricks and intelligence agency black operations. Turnbull related how the company "has relationships and partnerships with specialist organisations" who do "intelligence gathering" on political opponents using "people who used to work for MI5, MI6". He even bragged of carrying out operations himself using fake identities, saying he is "a master of disguise".
Nix also referred to having Israeli contacts (possibly ex-Mossad) who they use to do this sort of work on their behalf. According to Nix, disguising their work is a Cambridge Analytica specialty:
"Many of our clients don't want to be seen to be working with a foreign company… so often we set up, if we are working then we can set up fake IDs and websites, we can be students doing research projects attached to a university, we can be tourists, there's so many options we can look at. I have lots of experience in this."
Turnbull explained that the information they obtain is then deployed as part of a propaganda strategy, saying "we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again." He referred again to the need for this to be covert, without the target audience realising what is being done and who is doing it:
"It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that's propaganda', because the moment you think ‘that's propaganda', the next question is, ‘who's put that out?'."
What Are Cambridge Analytica?
These admissions raise the question of what kind of organization Cambridge Analytica are. They have denied that they actually offer these kinds of services, issuing a statement saying:
"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… We routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions."
However, they met with Channel 4's undercover reporter multiple times, each time being more explicit in what they offered, with Nix emphasizing in their final meeting, "I'm giving you examples of what can be done, and what has been done."
Meanwhile, Madsen was unequivocal in his opinion of the company, their practices and what the response should be, commenting:
"Cambridge Analytica should be prosecuted for criminal violations of the Racketeer- Influenced & Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act."