Cambridge Analytica created own quizzes to harvest Facebook data
LONDON — Cambridge Analytica created its own Facebook quizzes and questionnaires to collect reams of data on users using the social networking giant, according to a former senior official at the data mining company.
Brittany Kaiser, the former director of program development at Cambridge Analytica, told British lawmakers on Tuesday that the company, which is at the center of a broader Facebook data scandal, widely used such practices, including a “sex compass” quiz, to garner insight on peoples online habits.
These data-collection strategies made it highly likely that more peoples Facebook data had been collected without their knowledge than previously thought, according to Kaiser.
Cambridge Analytica is already accused of using a third-party app created by Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University professor, to collect online information on up to 87 million Facebook users. Alexander Nix, the companys former chief executive, also is now under investigation by Britains data protection agency in its ongoing probe into whether peoples data was mishandled during the countrys recent political campaigns.
The company denies any wrongdoing.
Nix was due to face questioning before a Parliament committee on Wednesday, but has called off his appearance, citing the investigation.
“I believe it is almost certain that the number of Facebook users whose data was compromised through routes similar to that used by Kogan is much greater than 87 million,” Kaiser told a U.K. parliamentary committee.
When asked by British lawmakers whether the Facebook quizzes created by Cambridge Analytica, which also included a questionnaire on peoples music tastes, were specifically designed to collect peoples online information, Kaiser responded: “I believe that was the point of the quizzes in the first place.”
In response, Facebook said that it was conducting an audit of all third-party apps that have used its digital platform.
“If we find developers that misused personally identifiable information, we will ban them and tell everyone affected,” Lena Pietsch, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement.
In several messages on Twitter, Cambridge Analytica played down its role in the Brexit vote, claiming that it never undertook paid work for Leave.eu, an anti-EU campaign group during the 2016 referendum.
During her lengthy testimony, Kaiser, an American citizen who left Cambridge Analytica in January, said that the data mining company had pitched several European political parties, including Germanys ruling Christian Democratic Union, Nicolas Sarkozys former presidential campaign and the Scottish National Party, for work.
She also said that people within the company had suggested pitching French politician Marine Le Pens political group, the National Front, and Germanys Alternative for Germany political party, though she could not confirm whether anyone had approached these far-right organizations.
None of the groups, she added, had accepted the offer, with many saying that the use of such data practices during EU national political campaigns “was not advisable,” according to Kaiser.
In her written testimony, the former Cambridge Analytica employee also said that Arron Banks, a major donor to the British campaign to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, had created a data company called Big Data Dolphins after originally being pitched by the data mining company to work for the Leave.EU campaign.
Kaiser claimed that Cambridge Analytica had spent five months developing “parallel” data harvesting proposals for Banks GoSkippy and Eldon Insurance companies, as well as the Leave.EU pro-Brexit campaign and U.K. Independence Party, two organizations to which he was a major donor.
The Leave.EU campaign unsuccessfully bid for the official designation as the pro-leave campaign group, but lost out to Vote Leave, which was fronted by now Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
The former Cambridge Analytica employee alleged that “misuse of data was rife” in Banks businesses and campaigns and that personal insurance data may have been used for political purposes.
“It seemed to me that the datasets and the staff were being used for Eldon/GoSkippy Insurance as well as Leave.EU in parallel,” said Kaiser, who spent time working at Eldons Bristol headquarters examining the information. The potential of collection of this commercial information through Banks insurance businesses, which may have then been used to target people during the Brexit referendum, may also be illegal under Britains data protection rules.
Banks wrote on Twitter that Leave.EU had declined to work with Cambridge Analytica.
Kaiser also alleged that Banks refused to pay a £41,500 bill for five months of work before setting up Big Data Dolphins, which allegedly copied many of Cambridge Analyticas data mining tactics and worked with a data science team at the University of Mississippi. Kaiser claimed these U.S. researchers could have held or processed U.K. citizens data outside of the country.
Such practices may have breached Britains strict data protection rules, which limit what personal information may be moved outside of the country. “If the Mississippi team has held or processed UK citizens data in the US, I believe that is likely to be a criminal offense,” she wrote in her testimony.
“If the Mississippi team has held or processed UK citizens data in the US, I believe that is likely to be a criminal offense; although it is for the empowered authorities to pursue any such question and secure the associated evidence,” she wrote.
UPDATED: This article was updated to reflect new developments.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Brittany Kaisers name.