Cambridge Analytica, the data-firm that's wrapped up in a massive scandal with Facebook, is having a very bad week. Following the reveal of an undercover video showing executives bragging about blackmail and bribery, a new video shows the men bragging about winning the election for Donald Trump and their use of a high-tech email system "with a self-destruct timer."
Channel 4's multi-part investigation into Cambridge Analytica concluded on Tuesday with another video of the firm's CEO, Alexander Nix, meeting with an undercover reporter who was impersonating a fixer for a wealthy client seeking help in swaying Sri Lankan elections. Mark Turnbull, Cambridge Analytica's managing director of political global, and Dr Alex Tayler, the company's chief data scientist, are also identified as attendees at the meeting.
In Tuesday's video, executives claimed that they could "send some girls around" to opposition candidates in order to create damaging material against them. They also floated the option of setting up meetings with opponents in which they're sneakily offered a bribe and caught on video. It's unclear how much of that talk is puffery, but it was certainly enough to prompt the UK's data watchdog to seek a warrant to raid the company's headquarters and get Nix suspended.
The latest video highlights these buffoons' inflated sense of self-importance or their grifting tactics with potential clients - whichever it is, it's easy to see why they were the perfect firm for the Trump campaign. They insist that their cutting-edge approach to data gave Trump the advantage he needed to squeak out the 40,000 votes extra votes in key states that nabbed him the Electoral College while he lagged behind by 3 million votes nationwide. Nix boasted that they were the propaganda arm for Trump, saying, "We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy."
Nix also went into more detail about his firm's use of proxy organisations for spreading negative attacks against Trump's opponent, while keeping Trump's more positive message relegated to his channel. "We just put information into the bloodstream to the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape," he said. "And so this stuff infiltrates the online community and expands but with no branding - so it's unattributable, untrackable."
None of what these guys go on about is especially revelatory, but the discussion about using Super PACs to fund negative ads and campaign funds for mobilization is a nice reminder that any coordination between those two entities would be illegal. Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing. In a statement to Channel 4, the firm said, "We have strict firewall practices to ensure no coordination between regulated groups, including the teams working on non-coordinated campaigns being physically separated, using different servers and being banned from communicating with each other."
If you're starting to think these guys are full of shit about their cloak and dagger expertise, look no further than the section where they brag about their secret self-destructing email system. Nix claims in the video:
No-one knows we have it, and secondly we set our … emails with a self-destruct timer. … So you send them and after they have been read, two hours later, they disappear. There's no evidence, there's no paper trail, there's nothing.
Channel 4 identified the email system as ProtonMail, a service that anyone can get right now.
Nix also mocks the House Intelligence Committee's Russia probe, to which he gave evidence in 2017. He said that the Republican members only asked him three questions and the interview was over in five minutes. "They're politicians, they're not technical," he said. "They don't understand how it works." In a statement emailed to Gizmodo, Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee's top Democrat, called for Nix to be compelled to come before the committee to answer some new questions. Schiff wrote, in part:
We have serious questions about the truthfulness of Mr. Nix's testimony. ...
We have invited the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, to testify and he has accepted our invitation. We will be inviting Dr. Alexandr Kogan to testify as well. It will also be necessary for the company to inform us whether the documents they turned over to the Committee represent Cambridge Analytica's complete records and data, and whether any responsive material was destroyed or made inaccessible due to the company's use of ProtonMail accounts.
On Monday, the New York Times' Kenneth Vogel tweeted, "Biggest secret about Cambridge Analytica: It was (& is) an overpriced service that delivered little value to the Trump campaign, & the other campaigns & PACs that retained it — most of which hired the firm because it was seen as a prerequisite for receiving $$$ from the Mercers." That seems pretty believable when you watch these guys in action.
But even if the Cambridge execs are charlatans, that doesn't resolve questions about the company's possible sharing of data with state-connected Russian interests. And above all, this all makes Facebook look pretty bad. The social network allegedly knew these goons were involved with the misappropriation of 50 million of its users' personal data, yet it did effectively nothing about it.
Gizmodo reached out to Facebook on Monday to ask when we can expect its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to address the controversy. On Tuesday afternoon, we received the following reply:
Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue. The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people's information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.
Facebook also had an all-hands meeting to address employees' concerns on Tuesday, according to the Daily Beast, neither Zuckerberg nor COO Sheryl Sandberg showed up.