Cambridge Analytica, the shady UK-based election firm that shut down after it allegedly partnered with an app to scrape data on at least 87 million Facebook users without their consent and months of ensuing controversy, is rapidly seeing its problems grow worse. Already embroiled in trouble with authorities in the UK, it now has to contend with investigations in the US launched by the Department of Justice and FBI, according to a report in the New York Times.
It is not yet clear what specific interest US investigators have in Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of behavioural research and strategic consulting conglomerate SCL Group that worked on US political campaigns including Donald Trump’s presidential run. (SCL Group shuttered alongside its subsidiaries.) But reports have already indicated that the firm was co-founded by now-former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and bankrolled by the wealthy Mercer family, which wields major influence in conservative circles. Former research director Christopher Wylie alleges Cambridge Analytica may have violated election law through an arrangement to hire foreign contractors for prohibited US election work.
According to the Times, investigators have already contacted witnesses and Facebook itself, and the inquiry involves both a DOJ securities and financial fraud assistant chief and a FBI cybercrime investigator:
Prosecutors have questioned potential witnesses in recent weeks, telling them that there is an open investigation into Cambridge Analytica – which worked on President Trump’s election and other Republican campaigns in 2016 – and “associated U.S. persons.” But the prosecutors provided few other details, and the inquiry appears to be in its early stages, with investigators seeking an overview of the company and its business practices.
The federal investigation in the United States appears to focus on the company’s financial dealings – investigators have reached out to the company’s banks, for instance – and how it acquired and used personal data pulled from Facebook and other sources, according to the American official, who was briefed on the inquiry, and other people familiar with it.
The only person who spoke to the Times on the record and not under the cover of anonymity was Wylie, who confirmed he had answered “preliminary questions” from both agencies and expected to be in future contact regarding “substantive answers.” Wylie added he was also cooperating with a UK investigation run by the National Crime Agency of Britain. Though it’s not clear whether the effort is at all connected to Robert Mueller, the DOJ special counsel investigating alleged Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections, the paper noted a source said a prior meeting between Mueller’s team and two Cambridge Analytica executives appeared to be “perfunctory.”
Additionally, Cambridge Analytica executives including CEO Alexander Nix were caught on camera by Channel 4 bragging about using the company’s psychometric data to win the election for Trump – though it’s also been alleged their supposedly powerful data tools were overhyped and overpriced – as well as proposing tactics like entrapment and bribery to win elections.
Cambridge Analytica denies any of the Facebook data in question was ever used on Trump’s campaign, and its press statements have more or less blamed this all on a media feeding frenzy. But its credibility is in shambles, and its UK troubles have included lingering questions about its connections to pro-Brexit groups. The scandal also caused massive problems for Facebook, which was forced to spend months frantically backpedaling amid sudden backlash to the amount of user data it shares with third parties by design.
An investigation is just an investigation, and this one is apparently in its early stages. It will sure be interesting to see where it goes.