A British data-mining company hired by the Donald Trump campaign to influence the US elections outcome was reportedly offered information from Israeli hackers who had accessed the private emails of two politicians who are now heads of state.
According to the UK’s The Guardian and Observer newspapers, in 2015 Israelis from an “office in Tel Aviv” handed employees of Cambridge Analytica a USB stick containing hacked personal emails from the computers of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Saint Kitts and Nevis politician Timothy Harris. Harris was at the time opposition leader and is now prime minister.
Cambridge Analytica was hired by a Nigerian billionaire to support the re-election of Jonathan and run a fierce campaign against his rival, opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari, The Guardian reported.
Cambridge Analytica been under fire since The New York Times and The Guardian newspaper reported that it used data inappropriately obtained from roughly 50 million Facebook users to try to influence elections, including the 2016 US presidential election. Among that information were users’ likes.
In a Monday report by UK’s Channel 4, hidden camera footage captures Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive Alexander Nix describing using Israeli “intelligence gathering” to get information about voters.
In addition to mining data from Facebook, Nix and the managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political division, Mark Turnbull, spoke of bribery stings, honey traps and spying with the help of ex-spies from Britain and Israel.
“We have two projects at the moment, which involve doing deep, deep, depth research on the opposition and providing source… really damaging source material, that we can decide how to deploy in the course of the campaign,” he told an undercover reporter posing as a Sri Lankan businessman.
“We use some British companies, we use some Israeli companies,” Nix said. “From Israel, very effective in intelligence gathering.”
In response to the Channel 4 exposé, the organization said, “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever.”
Britain’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, told Channel 4 she plans to seek a warrant to access servers of data mining firm Cambridge Analytica.
The head of the EU parliament has promised an investigation. US congressional members and Connecticut’s attorney general are seeking testimony or written responses. After two years of failing to disclose the harvesting, Facebook said Monday that it had hired an outside firm to audit Cambridge Analytica and its activities.
During the 2016 US presidential elections, Cambridge Analytica worked both for the primary campaign of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Trump’s general-election campaign. Trump’s campaign paid Cambridge more than $6 million, according to federal election records, although officials have more recently played down that work.
Cambridge Analytica was also backed by the conservative billionaire Richard Mercer, and at one point employed Stephen Bannon — later Trump’s campaign chairman and White House adviser — as a vice president.
The type of data mining reportedly used by Cambridge Analytica is fairly common, but is typically used to sell diapers and other products. Netflix, for instance, provides individualized recommendations based on how a person’s viewing behaviors fit with what other customers watch.
But that common technique can take on an ominous cast if it’s connected to possible elections meddling, said Robert Ricci, a marketing director at Blue Fountain Media.
Wylie said Cambridge Analytica aimed to “explore mental vulnerabilities of people.” He said the firm “works on creating a web of disinformation online so people start going down the rabbit hole of clicking on blogs, websites etc. that make them think things are happening that may not be.”
Wylie told “Today” that while political ads are also targeted at specific voters, the Cambridge Analytica effort aimed to make sure people wouldn’t know they were getting messages aimed at influencing their views.
The Trump campaign has denied using Cambridge Analytica’s data. The firm itself denies wrongdoing, and says it didn’t retain any of the data pulled from Facebook and didn’t use it in its 2016 campaign work.