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Cambridge Analytica a year on: ‘a lesson in institutional failure’ | UK news

It’s a measure of how much has changed in a year that, last month the UK, parliament published an official report that called Facebook “digital gangsters” and said that Britain’s electoral laws no longer worked. It was a report that drew on hours of testimony from Cambridge Analytica directors, Facebook executives and dozens of expert witnesses: 73 in total, of whom MPs had asked 4,350 questions. And its conclusion? That Silicon Valley’s tech platforms were out of control, none more so than Facebook, which it said had treated parliament with “contempt”.And it’s a measure of how much hasn’t changed that this was a news story for just two hours on a Monday morning before the next Westminster drama – the launch of the Independent Group – knocked it off the headline slots.It was a year ago this weekend that the Observer published the first in a series of stories, known as the Cambridge Analytica Files, that led to parliament grappling with these questions. The account of a whistleblower from inside the data analytics firm that had worked in different capacities – the details are still disputed – on the two pivotal campaigns of 2016 that gave us Brexit and Trump.Key events in the row over the political data analytics firm December 2015 First hint of the scandalThe Guardian reports that political data firm Cambridge Analytica was helping Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, suggesting the Republican candidate was using psychological data based on research into tens of millions of Facebook users in an attempt to gain an advantage over his political rivals June 2016 Firm works with Trump campaign Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy firm of which Steve Bannon is vice-president, starts working with Trump campaign aide Brad Parscale in San Antonio, alongside employees from Facebook and Google. Two months later, Donald Trump sacks Paul Manafort as his campaign manager and appoints Bannon. The campaign spends $6m on Cambridge Analytica’s services 17 March 2018 Wylie reveals harvestChristopher Wylie, a co-founder of Cambridge Analytica, claims in the Observer and the New York Times that the firm used 50 million harvested Facebook profiles in a major data scandal. This number was later revised by Facebook to 87 million. Wylie claimed the data sold to Cambridge Analytica was then used to develop "psychographic" profiles of people and deliver pro-Trump material to them online 21 March 2018 Zuckerberg apologisesAfter four days of refusing to comment, Mark Zuckerberg publishes a Facebook post apologising for the data breach. The Facebook CEO responds to the continued fallout over the data scandal, saying: "We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you. I've been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn't happen again" 25 March 2018 The ‘sorry’ adsZuckerberg takes out full-page ads in a number of British and American newspapers to apologise for a "breach of trust" 25 April 2018 Facebook revenues riseFacebook releases its first earnings report since the scandal was reported. The quarterly revenue was its highest for a first quarter and the second highest overall May 2018 Investigations launched Wylie appears before the US congress to answer questions about the scandal. Cambridge Analytica goes into administration. Days later it is reported that the FBI and the US Justice Department are investigating the company July 2017 Facebook finedThe UK's Information Commissioner’s Office announces it intends to fine Facebook £500,000 ($663,000) over the data scandal, saying Facebook "contravened the law by failing to safeguard people's information". $119bn is knocked off Facebook's stock value when Zuckerberg announces that significant numbers of users are leaving the platform November 2018 ‘Empty chair’Having refused multiple invitations to appear before the UK parliamentary inquiry into fake news, Mark Zuckerberg is "empty chaired" at a special committee meeting of members of nine national parliaments March 2019 Criminal inquiry It is reported that the US Justice Department is conducting a criminal inquiry into Facebook's data-sharing with other technology companiesChristopher Wylie, a 28-year-old Canadian and former research director at Cambridge Analytica, revealed how the company had exploited Facebook data harvested from millions of people across the world to profile and target them with political messages and misinformation, without their knowledge or consent.What followed can only be described as a media firestorm. The story made headlines all over the world. In the week after we published Wylie’s interview, Britain’s information commissioner obtained a warrant to enter Cambridge Analytica’s offices and seize its servers. Questions were asked in parliament. Facebook’s share price plunged more than $50bn. It has now fallen well over twice that. The affair raged for months. Cambridge Analytica rode it out, initially, but finally called in the administrators in May. In April Facebook admitted it wasn’t 50 million users who had had their profiles mined, as we had reported, it was actually 87 million users. Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before US congress. And in October the Information Commissioner’s Office fined Facebook its maximum possible penalty – £500,000 (which Facebook is appealing against).FacebookTwitterPinterest The Observer’s report, May 2017, on shadowy forces behind Trump and Brexit. Photograph: GNM When I meet Wylie to discuss the story a year on, I ask if he’s managed to process it all yet – the impact, the fallout, the loss of billions of dollars.“No,” he says. “I mean… how do you fathom a billion dollars? I’ve never seen a billion dollars. I don’t think anybody has. Maybe the US Treasury. But no, I can’t fathom that.”The year has been like a mirage, he says. “A lot of those months didn’t feel real. It felt like being in la-la land.”Wylie became a public figure overnight. And the story triggered what, in many ways, looks like a year of reckoning for the tech industry. Damian Collins, the chair of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s 18-month-long fake news inquiry, which delivered last month’s report, described the story’s publication as a “pivotal moment” when “public attitudes and government policy towards the tech companies started to change”.Last week, on the 30th anniversary of the worldwide web, its creator Tim Berners-Lee urged people to stop the “downward plunge” to “a dysfunctional future” that the Cambridge Analytica scandal had helped expose. It was, Berners-Lee said, the moment people realised that “elections had been manipulated using data that they contributed”.The problem is that while the tech companies have been called to account, they haven’t actually been held accountable. In November, after Zuckerberg refused to comply with a summons to parliament to answer questions about Facebook’s role in the scandal, Collins convened an international committee of nine parliaments. Zuckerberg refused to come to that too.Jason Kint, the Washington-based chief executive of the trade association Digital Content Next, and a tech industry expert, describes Facebook’s refusal to answer parliament’s questions about its role in the scandal as “the greatest cover-up in the history of the internet”. He has followed the fallout in minute detail, and all the subsequent parliamentary and congressional hearings, waiting for answers that never came.The story was about how a company was able to use and abuse our personal information to target us in ways we can’t even see, let alone understand. But the scandal that followed seems to reveal something far more shocking. That Facebook is not just bigger than any nation state on Earth, with 1.74 billion users, and plays a pivotal role in their elections, but that it’s completely out of control.FacebookTwitterPinterest After initially refusing to appear following the scandal, Alexander Nix, ex-CEO of Cambridge Analytica, gives evidence to the British parliamentary committee inquiry into fake news, June 2018. Photograph: PA “This may be the first time in history where a company literally controlled by one person appears to be unaccountable to anyone anywhere on Earth,” says Kint.A year ago, we knew none of this. This weekend is the anniversary of the story’s publication, but it’s almost two years since I met Wylie. We always knew the story would strike a blow against Cambridge Analytica. It’s why both he and I spent a year of our lives working on it. And why I shared my research with Channel 4 News, to enable their undercover filming of Cambridge Analytica bosses, and with the New York Times. But neither of us had realised quite how calamitous an effect it would have on Facebook.“Well, yes and no,” Wylie says. “Because what we did not anticipate was how Facebook would continuously shoot themselves in the foot. It was fair to assume it would have an impact on Facebook, but not that it would be a catastrophic crisis. But I think what the story really did was it forced them to show their cards.”That included threatening the Observer with legal action the day before we went to press. And making aggressive PR moves in the middle of the night: with hours to go before publication, Facebook published a statement saying that it had banned both Cambridge Analytica and Wylie from its platform. And, we learned from aNew York Times article in November, Facebook then hired a PR firm to launch a seemingly antisemitic smear campaign claiming that key critics of the company were funded by George Soros.“Facebook showed that they don’t care,” says Wylie. “They’re bullies. And they know they’re bullies. This whole aura around them of being the good guys is complete bullshit.”Wylie appeared before Collins’s parliamentary committee just over a week after the initial Observer story. Since then – in what he describes as his “global testimony tour” – he has testified to Congress and given evidence to regulators and lawmakers from across the world. He testified to the European parliament “and to the [US] House Intelligence Committee for something like five hours. I’ve testified multiple times to the House Intelligence Committee. And also the House Judiciary and Senate Judiciary.” In the US, the FBI is also investigating, as is the Department of Justice, the Securities Exchange Commission, 38 state attorney generals and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), all triggered by the story. The FTC is expected to impose a fine that will run into billions. Wylie gave evidence to pretty much all of them.He tells me about an evidence session in the “secure sub-basement beneath the basement at Congress”. The same day, he was subpoenaed by the Department of Justice and the FBI. “They knew where to find me.”FacebookTwitterPinterest Mark Zuckerberg testifies before US Congress in April 2018 after Facebook’s role was exposed. Photograph: Xinhua / Barcroft Images The ultimate consequences of the story, of Wylie’s evidence, aren’t yet known. But Jamie Bartlett, a journalist and author of The People Vs Tech, believes that the story has had a bigger impact on the public than Edward Snowden’s, and transformed the way politicians talk about big tech.“But especially Facebook,” says Bartlett. “Just yesterday, the Democrat presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren said she wants Facebook broken up. She wouldn’t have said this without the Cambridge Analytica story. And this change in political tone is hugely significant.”David Carroll, a New York professor who sued Cambridge Analytica to get his data back, describes the story as a “cataclysm”, which he believed exposed the company as “the original gangster of rogue actors in the dark world of influence”. Which makes Facebook the capo di capi, the boss of bosses.Wylie’s role in the story is over, for now. His testimony tour has ended. He has a new job and we’re sitting in the London office of his new employer, Swedish global fashion brand H&M, where he’s the new head of data research. I think some people were surprised, I say, when they learned of his move. “What do you mean?” he says.Well, I think because you’d been out there championing the threat to democracy, it was unclear what you’d do next.“What people forget is that no one pays you to go and be a champion for democracy. A girl’s got to make rent. I didn’t have a job for two years.”FacebookTwitterPinterest How the Observer broke the Cambridge Analytica and Vote Leave scandals, 18 and 25 March 2018. Photograph: GNM The office is all clean, white, Scandinavian lines. Sunlight pours through the window on to the minimalist design features and artfully arranged pot plants. It’s an almost absurd contrast from where we were a year go. My overriding impression of the months before publication, I tell him, when we were working with lawyers on how to break his non-disclosure agreement and trying to prove the public interest case, and dealing with other news organisations, is of this long and dark and scary winter. “Well it was,” he says. “It was stressful. And chaotic. And consuming.”It was an unsettling period, weird, difficult and paranoid-making.“It was also like dealing with a bit...

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