What Is Cambridge Analytica?

Cambridge Analytica is a now-defunct 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 is an 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, including for political campaigns, based on user profiles.

In 2018, the company became the subject of widespread criticism following reports that it had 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 270,000 users. In this manner, Cambridge Analytica was able to access a far larger pool of data concerning roughly 90 million users—without the knowledge or consent of almost any of them.

Using the data points collected, Cambridge Analytica was able to build models that allowed psychological profiling of the variety of users, including political affinities of the user, whether he/she is an extrovert or introvert, and how he/she would react to a particular campaign. 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 is based not only on their acquisition of personal information, but also on the way in which that information was used. 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 recent sting operation, a channel reporter managed to film 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 would use 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 the accounts of SCL 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.