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Cambridge Analytica: What do they do, and will they be the end of Facebook?

Fast facts about Cambridge Analytica, a data company at the center of the Trump-Russia scandal.
cybersecurity, cyber security
Photo: Reuters

Cambridge Analytica is in the news for their connection to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and possible misdeeds connected to it. On Tuesday, an explosive TV report by Britain's Channel 4 news showed executives of Cambridge Analytica captured on hidden camera bragging about using dirty tricks in overseas elections, including entrapment and bribes. (The company has denied it has used those techniques.)

Simultaneous stories in the New York Times and the Guardian profiled a former Cambridge Analytica employee who said the company scraped data from millions without authorization to sell for political purposes, that he developed software likely used in the Trump campaign, and that future Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was talking with Cambridge Analytica in 2015.

What is Cambridge Analytica, and what do they do?

Cambridge Analytica is a British company which set up an outpost in Massachusetts funded by Republican megadonors Steve and Rebekah Mercer. (The Mercers originally supported Ted Cruz before throwing their full weight — including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway — behind Donald Trump.) The company mines and analyzes online data for use in political campaigns.

Cambridge Analytica is accused of capturing 50 million Facebook users' data without authorization, then selling it to political campaigns to target those users with advertising based on "psychographics," such as their likes and follows, and what those may indicate about their hopes and fears. The company is suspected of using those microtargeting capabilities to disseminate fake news and disinformation, including from Russia, to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, along with influencing the 2016 Brexit vote.

U.S. politicians who have used CA's services include Rep. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and the Trump campaign.

The Trump campaign said they did not use psychographics in the 2016 election. Former national security adviser Mike Flynn said he had served as an adviser to Cambridge Analytica during the Trump campaign.

Will Cambridge Analytica be the end of Facebook?

After Monday's news, Facebook users revolted over the news that Facebook had allowed their privacy to be violated and their personal information weaponized for political ends.

As ingrained as Facebook is into modern communication, it will take a lot to bring it down. These revelations are a lot, but probably not enough. That said, there's plenty of unrest in the company right now: Its stock price dropped about 9 percent on each of the two days following the Channel 4 and newspaper reports. A top executive announced he would resign following a disagreement on how the company handled Russian disinformation on the platform. And the company called an emergency all-hands meeting on Tuesday.

What may happen: Members of Congress are demanding that Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook employees testify on Capitol Hill. The Federal Trade Commission may subject the company to massive fines for violating FTC privacy rules. Ultimately, Congress may see fit to begin regulating internet companies, specifically advertising, requiring political ads to be more transparent and attributable (like how TV ads from a political candidate are required to include the message, "I'm [blank] and I endorse this message."].

For years, other industries have been grumbling about being subject to government regulation while Congress has turned a blind eye to Silicon Valley. The online political advertising sphere has been likened to "the Wild West." Following that analogy, we might be on the verge of another Industrial Revolution.

 
 
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