By Melissa Ryan
Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL Group closed their doors this week and plan to file for bankruptcy. CA released a statement blaming the closure on a “siege of media coverage [that has] driven away virtually all of the Company’s customers and suppliers.” Employees were informed on Thursday via a conference call, where they were also told that attempting to rebrand CA was futile so they wouldn’t bother.
That, however, appears not to be the whole truth. Less than an hour after news of CA’s demise became public, news broke that the essential players behind the company, including Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer, were listed in a filing for a new entity, Emerdata.
The story of Cambridge Analytica is largely misunderstood by the press and public. The company billed itself as a political consulting firm but shouldn’t be viewed as one. CA’s leadership was caught on camera selling a variety of services no reputable political consulting firm would ever offer, including “bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.” CA gave a sales presentation about disrupting elections to a Russian oligarch. CA also reached out to Wikileaks in 2016 offering to help distribute Clinton’s emails. These are not services political consultants typically provide (despite what House of Cards and Scandal might have told you).
Why does this matter? The data breach didn’t just expose user data to a political consulting firm, but to a company whose motivations aren’t clear and whose full operations aren’t yet known. We don’t know who has/had our data or the entirety of what it was used for. For example, did the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency end up with the data or use targeting suggestions from Cambridge Analytica? Given that CA was pitching Russian oligarchs on how to disrupt an election, this isn’t an unreasonable scenario to consider. The Frog Squad that I’ve spent the last couple of years covering? Cambridge Analytica helped build it.
SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, did work in “more than 100 election campaigns in over 30 countries spanning five continents.” Given what little we know about their activities, that should shake us to the core. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie briefed Democrats on the Hill recently and Rep. David Cicilline said that what they’d learned was “disturbing”. The United Kingdom has an ongoing investigation into the company, but Republicans in Congress are preventing the US from looking into it at all. Given the Trump campaign and the GOP’s ties to CA, that refusal to investigate is suspect. The best interpretation is that they just don’t want to know.
What is Cambridge Analytica’s legacy? A recent article from Clint Watts offers a sad but probably true answer: American political campaigns will embrace their tactics.
The world shouldn’t be surprised Cambridge Analytica moved to offer the precursor to trolling-as-a-service. We should instead be surprised that it’s the only one we know about to date. Political campaigns recognize this need, and it’s no wonder that Brad Parscale, President Trump’s digital campaign leader in 2016 who smartly brought Facebook directly into his efforts, has been elevated to campaign manager for 2020.
Cambridge Analytica’s approach appears to have advanced the Kremlin’s playbook by applying more science to their art, aggregating voluminous personal data and then employing greater computational power to more rapidly and effectively influence audiences on scale. Cambridge Analytica’s second generation trolling and claimed offerings are as much aspirational as reality, a touch of digital snake oil perhaps, but their vision is on target. Cambridge Analytica is really just the beta version of trolling-as-a-service.
Cambridge Analytica as we knew it may be gone but as Emerdata’s immediate emergence shows, its work will live on. Meanwhile, Facebook told investors recently that uncovering more breaches of user data was likely. Americans are still vulnerable, which is unsettling given the midterm elections are less than six months away.