Fifty million Facebook users, after having been assured that "their data" was safe, found it had been siphoned away and used by the British firm Cambridge Analytica presumably for American political purposes. The unauthorized data retention was revealed by a Canadian whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who worked for "a company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL), one of whose subsidiaries, SCL Elections, would go on to create data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica".
Cambridge Analytica offers services to businesses and political parties and claims to be able to combine predictive analytics, behavioural sciences, and data-driven advertising technology to equip their clients with the necessary data and insights to drive campaigns.The firm went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain's EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during US President Donald Trump's election campaign in 2016.
The feat was accomplished by paying users to take a personality test through an app whose real purpose was to trick participants into granting permission to access their Facebook accounts and through it, the data of their friends.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who may be called to testify before legislative committees, portrayed himself as a victim of deceit. What Cambridge Analytica had done was a violation of policy and an abuse of the firm's trusting nature. "On CNN, Zuckerberg said Facebook made a mistake in 2015, by not following up enough after learning of Cambridge Analytica’s data mining. At the time, Facebook received a formal certification that the data has been deleted. But it apparently had not been.“I don’t know about you, but I’m used to when people legally certify that they are going to do something, that they do it. But I think this was clearly a mistake in retrospect,” Zuckerberg said. “We need to make sure we don’t make that mistake ever again.”
In the aftermath of the scandal Zuckerberg vowed to review thousands of 3rd party apps to prevent a repetition of the incident, as if Cambridge Analytica was just some other app developer that had slipped through the cracks. But the firm was clearly different. Its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories was headed by Nigel Oakes is described by the Times of London as having "social and business links to the heart of the Conservative Party, royalty and the British military."
According to its website, SCL has influenced elections in Italy, Latvia, Ukraine, Albania, Romania, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Colombia, Antigua, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Trinidad & Tobago. While the company initially got involved in elections in the United Kingdom, it ceased to do so after 1997 because staff members did not exhibit the same "aloof sensibility" as with projects abroad.