Breaking down the Cambridge Analytica scandal

Last Updated : 26 July 2019, 09:42 IST

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For a few years now, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has been a well-known foundation for data protection activists around the world to make a case for strong internet privacy laws.

But what exactly is the scandal all about? When did it break? Who are the key players? Read on to find out:

What is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica was a subsidiary of the British communications company SCL group, which specialised in data wrangling and analytics. The SCL group gained popularity as a defence contractor in the early 2000s and was heavily involved in military disinformation campaigns, commonly called "Psyops". Cambridge Analytica took the SCL group's foundation and applied it in the political arena.

The Cambridge Analytica issue first broke out in December 2015 during the US Presidential elections, where the company was helping with the campaign of Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

Under the company's expertise, Ted Cruz earned significant success and was well en route to becoming the GOP's Presidential candidate, before Donald Trump was named.

Who broke it?

While it wasn't until much later after Trump's win that Cambridge Analytica got mainstream media attention, it was first broken by The Guardian's Harry Davies during the Ted Cruz campaign, and after Trump won, multiple reporters took the story into the limelight; with the most popular among them being Carole Cadwalladr, who was driven by testimony from Christopher Wylie, a former employee at Cambridge Analytica.

What did Cambridge Analytica do?

Cambridge Analytica provided data analytics for Donald Trump's election, harvesting data from millions of Americans' Facebook accounts by way of "personality tests" that required the users to give the tests full access to their accounts. This led to exponential data harvesting because the apps harvested not only the profiles of the users, but that of their friends as well.

The company claimed it had 5,000 data points per American and a map of the habits and personalities of every voter in the country. Depending on their political alignment, the company created tailor-made advertisements to convince them that Hillary Clinton was a person of questionable character and incentivised them to vote for Donald Trump.

The company was also supposed to be involved in the Leave.EU campaign that led to Brexit, but several high-level executives, including former CEO Alexander Nix have said the company doesn't speak about it.

Who are the people involved?

The CEO, Alexander Nix, is unquestionably the most in-the-know figure, and he had once admitted to engaging in activities of questionable legality during a sting operation on TV.

Aside from him, one of the key people in the scandal was Brittany Kaiser, who was originally an intern in the Obama campaign but decided to join the GOP campaign with Cambridge Analytica. After the scandal broke out, however, she decided to help bring about some accountability to what the company had done. She went on to start the #OwnYourData campaign.

The whistleblower who brought the issue into the light was Christopher Wylie, a former data wrangler at the company. During his talks with Carole Cadwalladr and his testimonies, Wylie exposed the goings-on at the company. Much of what he said was dismissed by senior executives, who insisted he was not working with the company and thus had no means to access their operations.

The biggest fish in the pond, however, was Mark Zuckerberg. The founder of Facebook had to face intense Senate grillings, during which he famously admitted that the company "did not do enough" to protect users' data from being misused and promised to "get it right" with the platform's users.

What happened in the end?

The expose led to a number of high-profile changes to the data mining landscape. First, Alexander Nix was suspended from Cambridge Analytica. The company itself, alongside its parent company, filed for bankruptcy in 2018 - an act believed to be taken to prevent authorities from taking control of the data it held, something the company denied.

The scandal also opened worldwide discussions on the importance of data protection, with many countries beginning to work on their own laws to protect their citizens' online identities.

Where else has Cambridge Analytica operated?

Apart from America and possibly Europe, Cambridge Analytica is said to have had its fingers in the Trinidad and Tobago elections and was also operating in Ghana, Nigeria, Czech Republic, Mexico, Kenya, and India.

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Published 26 July 2019, 08:55 IST

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