Cambridge Analytica Scandal: Firm’s CEO suspended; Lawmakers demand Mark Zuckerberg’s response

By Shreya Maskara 

British data firm Cambridge Analytica has announced the suspension of its CEO after an undercover recording where he acknowledged the firm’s role in political campaigns was released. The company, which is currently under investigation for illegally harvesting millions of Facebook profiles, released a statement late Tuesday announcing the suspension of CEO Alexander Nix after his comments were secretly recorded by British television network Channel 4 News.

Nix’s admission

The Channel 4 broadcast, which was aired on Monday, shows a series of hidden recordings that were filmed at London hotels over the course of four months from November 2017 to January 2018. The exposé was recorded by an undercover reporter who posed as a wealthy client hoping to get certain candidates elected in Sri Lanka.

Besides Nix, two other Cambridge Analytica officials are seen in the footage—Alexander Tayler, who serves as the organisation’s chief data officer and has now been named as the interim chief, and Mark Turnbull, managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global.

In the video, Nix tries to sell the company’s services to the undercover reporter and can be heard as saying that if clients don’t want to be seen working with foreign companies, “often we set up… fake IDs and websites, we can be students doing research projects attached to a university, we can be tourists, there’s so many options we can look at.” Nix adds, “I have lots of experience in this.”

Nix also details ways in which his company acquires information on political opponents, including sending “some girls around to the candidate’s house.” He adds that he thinks Ukrainian girls are “very beautiful” and this strategy works “very well.”

Turnbull is heard describing how the company pushes damaging materials on its political opponents using social media.

“We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control,” he can be heard as saying.

Christopher Wylie, a former employee of the company, said to the Observer and the New York Times that Cambridge Analytica is a “full-service propaganda machine”.

The executives can also be heard boasting about the fact that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) has worked for over 200 elections in the world, including in India and Kenya.

Also Read: Explainer: Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the “biggest breach” in tech history

Zuckerberg in for a rough ride

In the wake of the scandal, investors have filed suits against Facebook regarding making “materially false and misleading statements.” Shareholder Fan Yuan filed the claim in the federal court in San Francisco on Tuesday on behalf of an undisclosed number of investor who purchased company shares between February 3, 2017, and March 19, 2018.

Facebook shares fell another 3% on Tuesday, following a 7% fall on Monday, wiping out almost $49.4 billion of its market value. Facebook is one of the most valuable companies in the world, with a market value of around $488 billion.

In a letter sent on Tuesday, Damian Collins, chair of the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear and provide testimony on how Facebook acquires, stores and protects users’ data.

“It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process,” Collins said in the letter. “There is a strong public interest test regarding user protection.” Collins has urged Zuckerberg to provide a response by Monday, March 26. Meanwhile, The UK Electoral Commission is also investigating what role Cambridge Analytica played in the Brexit referendum.

An updated press release from Facebook also confirmed that on-site investigation is being conducted at the Cambridge Analytica’s offices in London by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.

Additionally, US senators and lawmakers are calling for investigations into the matter, and there is increasing pressure on Zuckerberg to testify about the matter. Former employees of the Federal Trade Commision also said in an interview with the Washington Post that Facebook could face billions of dollars in fines for violating a 2011 agreement with the FTC about user privacy.

Democrat Party lawmakers are being particularly harsh to Zuckerberg in demanding answers about how the firm that worked for President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign got access to millions of profiles, without any knowledge of the company. Although information about whether Cambridge Analytica directly used the secretly harvested data for Trump’s campaign is not available, however, according to the investigation conducted by the New York Times this data was used for “developing techniques that underpinned its (CA’s) work” on the campaign.

With global pressure building and a rapid fall in its market value, Zuckerberg is facing immense pressure to issue a response to the scandal.