NEW YORK -- A firm that worked for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and which is under scrutiny for inappropriately obtaining data on tens of millions of Facebook users, created profiling algorithms that "took fake news to the next level," a former employee said.
Also Monday, a British television station broadcast video apparently showing the firm's head talking about using bribes, traps involving sex workers and other tactics to swing elections around the world.
And Facebook's chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, is leaving the company after internal disagreements over how the social network should deal with its role in spreading disinformation, according to current and former employees briefed on the matter.
Chris Wylie said his former employer, Cambridge Analytica, secured personal data in order to learn about individuals and then used it to create an information cocoon to change their perceptions.
"This is based on an idea called 'informational dominance,' which is the idea that if you can capture every channel of information around a person and then inject content around them, you can change their perception of what's actually happening," Wylie said Monday on NBC's Today.
The social network is under fire after The New York Times and The Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge Analytica used data inappropriately obtained from roughly 50 million Facebook users to try to influence elections.
The broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 News relied on surreptitious video recordings of Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, claiming to have used "a web of shadowy front companies" in pursuit of winning elections.
The company on Monday disputed the report and others published over the weekend about the company's use of troves of Facebook data. "Cambridge Analytica strongly denies the claims recently made by the New York Times, the Guardian and Channel 4 News," the company said on Twitter.
Cambridge Analytica elaborated in a statement, saying that it had posed a series of "ludicrous hypothetical scenarios" to determine whether the client was someone they should engage with.
"I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case," Nix said in the statement. "I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called 'honeytraps', and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose. I deeply regret my role in the meeting and I have already apologised to staff. I should have recognised where the prospective client was taking our conversations and ended the relationship sooner."
According to the video posted by Channel 4 News, Nix appears to suggest the company could "send some girls around to the candidate's house." He later added that he favored Ukrainian women in particular: "They are very beautiful, I find that works very well."
The video also appears to depict conversations involving Nix; Mark Turnbull, the managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global; and Alex Tayler, the chief data officer. The Channel 4 News team reportedly told the company officials they were meeting with a "fixer for a wealthy client hoping to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka."
The executives repeatedly appear to brag about their behind-the-scenes efforts to influence political outcomes in Mexico, Australia and Kenya, at one point teasing that they're beginning to work in China, too.
After the expose, Elizabeth Denham, Britain's information commissioner, told Channel 4 News that she was "shocked" and "deeply concerned."
Her office has been conducting a widespread probe, which started last year, into data analytics and political profiling.
She said that this morning she would be applying for a warrant to access Cambridge Analytica's databases and servers to "understand how data was processed or deleted by Cambridge Analytica -- there are a lot of conflicting stories about the data."
When asked if she was concerned about Facebook getting "ahead" of her office by sending in its own team on Monday night to Cambridge Analytica's London offices, she said: "I think it's very important that we apply for the warrant and that we do the search on behalf of the public."
Facebook said Monday night that the firm it enlisted for that audit "stood down" at the request of Denham's office.
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.
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 effort aimed to make sure people wouldn't know they were getting messages aimed at influencing their views.
TENSION AT FACEBOOK
At Facebook, the impending exit of Stamos reflects heightened leadership tension at the top of the social network. Much of the internal disagreement is rooted in how much Facebook should publicly share about how nation states misused the platform and debate over organizational changes in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, according to current and former employees briefed on the matter.
Stamos, who plans to leave Facebook by August, had advocated more disclosure around Russian interference of the platform and some restructuring to better address the issues, but was met with resistance by colleagues, said the current and former employees. In December, Stamos' day-to-day responsibilities were reassigned to others, they said.
Stamos said he was persuaded to stay through August to oversee the transition of his responsibilities and because executives thought his departure would look bad, the people said. He has been overseeing the transfer of his security team to Facebook's product and infrastructure divisions. His group, which once had 120 people, now has three, the current and former employees said.
Stamos would be the first high-ranking employee to leave Facebook since controversy over disinformation on its site. Company leaders -- including Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer -- have struggled to address the growing set of problems.
The developments have taken a toll internally, said the people briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified because the proceedings were confidential. Some of the company's executives are weighing their own legacies and reputations as Facebook's image has taken a beating. Several believe the company would have been better off saying little about Russian interference and note that other companies, such as Twitter, which have stayed relatively quiet on the issue, have not had to deal with as much criticism.
One central tension at Facebook has been that of the legal and policy teams versus the security team. The security team generally pushed for more disclosure about how nation states had misused the site, but the legal and policy teams have prioritized business imperatives, said the people briefed on the matter.
"The people whose job is to protect the user always are fighting an uphill battle against the people whose job is to make money for the company," said Sandy Parakilas, who worked at Facebook enforcing privacy and other rules until 2012 and now advises a nonprofit organization called the Center for Humane Technology, which is looking at the effect of technology on people.
Stamos said in statement Monday, "These are really challenging issues, and I've had some disagreements with all of my colleagues, including other executives." On Twitter, he said he was "still fully engaged with my work at Facebook" and acknowledged that his role has changed, without addressing his future plans.
Information for this article was contributed by Barbara Ortutay and Anick Jesdanun of The Associated Press; by Craig Timberg, Tony Romm and Karla Adam of The Washington Post; by Nicole Perlroth, Sheera Frenkel and Scott Shane of The New York Times; and by Sarah Frier of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 03/20/2018
Print Headline: Miner of data denies fakery; Campaign firm’s strategy reported