Washington — Sitting in a hotel bar, Alexander Nix, who runs the political data firm Cambridge Analytica, had a few ideas for a prospective client looking for help in a foreign election. The firm could send an attractive woman to seduce a rival candidate and secretly videotape the encounter, Nix said, or send someone posing as a wealthy land developer to pass a bribe.
“We have a long history of working behind the scenes,” Nix said.
The prospective client, though, was actually a reporter from Channel 4 News in Britain, and the encounter was secretly filmed as part of a monthslong investigation into Cambridge Analytica, the data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The results of Channel 4’s work were broadcast in Britain on Monday, days after reports in The New York Times and The Observer of London that the firm had harvested data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles in its bid to develop techniques for predicting the behaviour of individual American voters.
The weekend’s reports about the data misuse have prompted calls from lawmakers in Britain and the United States for renewed scrutiny of Facebook, and at least two American state prosecutors have said they are looking into the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica.
Read more: A new threat to Facebook’s reputation
Now, the Channel 4 broadcast appears likely to cast an even harsher spotlight on the company, which was founded by Stephen K. Bannon and Robert Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor who put has put at least $15 million into Cambridge Analytica.
The firm’s psychographic modeling techniques, which were built in part with the data harvested from Facebook, underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016, though many have questioned their effectiveness.
Less noticed has been the work that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL Group, have done outside the United States. The operations of the two companies were set up with a convoluted corporate structure and are deeply intertwined.
Nix, for instance, holds dual appointments at the two companies. Cambridge Analytica is registered in Delaware and almost wholly owned by the Mercer family, but it is effectively a shell — it holds intellectual property rights to its psychographic modeling tools, yet its clients are served by the staff at London-based SCL and overseen by Nix, who is a British citizen.
SCL Elections has clients around the world, and it has experimented with data-driven microtargeting techniques in the Caribbean and Africa, where privacy rules are lax or nonexistent and politicians employing SCL have been happy to provide government-held data, according to former employees.
But in the footage broadcast by Channel 4, Nix offered services that go far beyond data harvesting. The Times did not work with Channel 4 on its report about Cambridge Analytica.
“Many of our clients don’t want to be seen to be working with a foreign company,” he told the Channel 4 reporter, who was not identified. “We can 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.”
The Channel 4 reporter posed as a “fixer” for a wealthy Sri Lankan family that wanted to help politicians they favored. In a series of meetings at London hotels between November and January, all of which were secretly filmed, Nix and other executives boasted that Cambridge Analytica employs front companies and former spies on behalf of political clients.
The information that is uncovered through such clandestine work is then put “into the bloodstream to the internet,” said Mark Turnbull, another Cambridge executive, in an encounter in December 2017 at the Berkeley hotel in London.
“Then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again, over time, to watch it take shape,” he added. “It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda.’ Because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda,’ the next question is, ‘Who’s put that out?'”
The most damning footage, though, was of Nix’s suggestion that the company could entrap political rivals through seduction or bribery.
At a meeting in January, also at the Berkeley hotel, Nix was direct about the techniques SCL could use to aid a client.
“I mean, deep digging is interesting,” he said. “But you know equally effective can be just to go and speak to the incumbents and to offer them a deal that’s too good to be true, and make sure that that’s video-recorded, you know. These sorts of tactics are very effective, instantly having video evidence of corruption, putting it on the internet, these sorts of things.”
Nix then suggested they could have someone pose as a wealthy developer. “They will offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance,” he said. “We’ll have the whole thing recorded on cameras.”
Or, Nix said, they could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house — we have lots of history of things.”
The reporter asked what kind of girls, and Nix said they could find some Ukrainian women. “I’m just saying, we could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us you know,” Nix replied. “You know what I’m saying.”
“They are very beautiful,” he said. “I find that works very well.”
To be sure, though, Nix said that he was speaking only in hypotheticals. “Please don’t pay too much attention to what I’m saying because I’m just giving you examples of what can be done and what, what has been done,” he said.
Cambridge Analytica, in a statement issued after the Channel 4 broadcast, said the report was “edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature of those conversations and how the company conducts its business.”
The company said that it was the undercover reporter who had raised the idea of entrapping politicians, and that the executives had been trying to assess his intent. Nix and Turnbull “humored these questions and actively encouraged the prospective client to disclose his intentions,” it said.
“They left with grave concerns and did not meet with him again,” the company said.
For Nix, the footage comes at an already perilous moment. This month, he told a parliamentary inquiry into fake news and Russian interference in Britain’s referendum to exit the European Union that Cambridge Analytica never used or possessed Facebook data.
But after the reports in The Times and Observer on Saturday, Damian Collins, the Conservative lawmaker leading the inquiry, said he planned to call Nix back to testify.
“It seems clear that he has deliberately misled the committee and Parliament,” Collins said in a statement this weekend.
Elizabeth Denham, the British information commissioner, told Channel 4 News that on March 7 she asked for access to Cambridge Analytica, setting a deadline of 6 p.m. Monday. Denham said she did not accept the response as satisfactory and so would be applying in court Tuesday for a warrant.
“We need to look at the databases, we need to look at the servers and understand how the data was processed,” she said.
In a statement, Facebook said it had “hired a digital forensics firm, Stroz Friedberg, to conduct a comprehensive audit of Cambridge Analytica.”
But Collins, chairman of the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, said he was concerned that Facebook might gain access to data before the information commissioner did.
“What are they doing?” Collins asked on Channel 4 News. “Are they going in to physically recover data, to disturb the files? This investigation should be for the authorities.”
Collins said that the former Cambridge Analytica employee who came forward to disclose his company’s actions, Christopher Wylie, would be giving evidence to his committee. He said he wanted Mark Zuckerberg, or another senior executive from Facebook, to do the same.
The New York Times