What Is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica was a consulting company that specialized in using data science methodologies to support political campaigns. The company declared bankruptcy in 2018 following legal and political fallout from its use of personal data obtained from roughly 90 million Facebook (FB) users.

Key Takeaways

  • Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting company that infamously attempted to use the psychological profiles of roughly 90 million Facebook users to influence their political decisions.
  • The firm was active in the Leave-EU Brexit campaign, as well as Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
  • Although Cambridge Analytica closed its doors in 2018, several of the company’s key personnel have since founded or moved to similar companies.

Understanding Cambridge Analytica

Founded in 2013, Cambridge Analytica was the offshoot of a British company called SCL Group (formerly Strategic Communication Laboratories) and was set up as a U.S. subsidiary company of SCL. During its early days, it targeted Facebook and other social media platforms to run advertisements based on user profiles, including ads for political campaigns.

In 2018, the company became the subject of widespread criticism following reports that it purchased data from a British academic concerning the personal psychological profile of roughly 270,000 Facebook users. Due to the terms and conditions of the Facebook platform at that time, the company was able to indirectly access data from the Facebook friends of those users. In this manner, Cambridge Analytica was able to access a far larger pool of data concerning 87 million users—without the knowledge or consent of almost any of them.

Cambridge Analytica was able to use the data points it collected to build models that allowed psychological profiling of the variety of users, including the political affinities of the user, whether they were extroverts or introverts, and how they would react to certain campaigns. Using these profile-based models, the company managed to run different campaigns suitable for different kinds of users, which allegedly influenced election choices.

Real World Example of Cambridge Analytica

The public’s concern regarding Cambridge Analytica was based not only on its acquisition of personal information but also on the way the company reportedly used that information. As a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica allegedly used this data in support of various clients’ political campaigns, effectively using people’s psychological profiles to influence their political decisions.

Two notable examples of campaigns with ties to Cambridge Analytica are the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum debate and the 2016 presidential election campaign of Donald Trump.In a sting operation, a reporter filmed the company executive, Alexander Nix, proudly claiming that his firm did all the data research, mining, and analytics work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He allegedly also bragged about the unethical practices the company used to expose the corrupt politicians in foreign elections, thereby influencing the outcomes.

Following the revelations in March 2018, Nix was suspended from his post, and Facebook suspended all of SCL's accounts for failing to delete the key data points the company collected from the social media platform. However, several of the company’s key personnel have since founded or moved to other companies engaged in political consulting based on data science techniques.