LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We're getting new information about a different kind of interference in the 2016 election. This time, it involves a data firm called Cambridge Analytica. A joint investigation from The New York Times and The London Observer found that the firm, quote, "harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission." It later used that data to help target American voters for its work with President Trump's campaign. Facebook has now suspended the company from its platform. For more, Matthew Rosenberg joins me in the studio. He covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times, and he co-authored this story. Welcome to the program.
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us what Cambridge Analytica is.
ROSENBERG: It's a data firm, basically - founded by Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, these billionaires - kind of Republican donors - and Steve Bannon. And the idea, the conceit was that they're going to use big data to map the personality of every voter. And by mapping the personality, they could then predict their behavior, sway them, influence them and change American political culture - shift it to the right, shift it to the views they wanted to establish.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Influence them how?
ROSENBERG: You know, through a variety of advertising. So, like, let's say you find out this particular voter is neurotic. OK. Let's scare them with talk of crime and other issues. Let's say you find somebody who's open-minded and kind of optimistic. Well, how can we advertise at them? How can we appeal to that kind of point of view? It's a very - you know, they're using something called psychographics, which is a very new field and academic discipline that has a number of proponents and a lot of critics. And it's really uncertain how well this worked in 2014 when the firm first started going and then in 2016. But, you know, its proponents, like some of the guys at Cambridge Analytica, think this is the future, that we can really shape American politics and reshape them this way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the core of your investigation, though, there was this huge data breach - 50 million users, which is a number that we hadn't really heard before. Explain why you call it a data breach.
ROSENBERG: Look. There was a bunch of information that was on Facebook and ended up with a private company where it wasn't supposed to, where most of those users had no idea it was going to end up. To us, that's a breach.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what is exactly the information that they got?
ROSENBERG: So this would be, you know, everything that was on, say, your Facebook profile, your basic bio data, everything you liked, who your friends were, where you lived. A lot of that information is private by default now, or only your friends can see it. And the way this app worked was that somebody would download the app. It would scrape all their information, and then it would scrape all their friends' information, which, in 2014, Facebook allowed. The thing is that the app said it was doing it for academic research, which it wasn't. It was doing it for Cambridge Analytica. The person - the professor who designed the app did this specifically for Cambridge Analytica. And throughout the process, Cambridge Analytica was paying the bills for the data collection. So it's not like somebody stumbled upon it and just sold it to them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So basically, they misrepresented what they were really using it for.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You and other news organizations got a lot of this new information from a leaker, Chris Wylie. He helped found Cambridge Analytica. And the U.K.'s Channel 4 actually spoke with him. And here is what he says. He says Cambridge Analytica basically weaponized your Facebook page.
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CHRISTOPHER WYLIE: So whenever you go, and you like something, you are giving me a clue as to who you are as a person. And so all of this can be captured very easily and run through an algorithm that learns who you are. When you go to work - right? - your co-workers only see one side of you. Your friends only see one side of you. But a computer sees all kinds of sides of you. And so we can get better than human level accuracy at predicting your behavior.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about Chris Wylie.
ROSENBERG: Chris is a fascinating kid. He really believes that this is the future. He is a 28-year-old vegan from Canada who dropped out of high school, ended up getting into politics and data politics in Canada with Ken Strasma, who is Obama's big data guy. And he's got pictures of himself at Obama's 2012 inauguration. He ends up in London just into these circles with the people who eventually become Cambridge Analytica. And look. He is not a right-wing ideologue. He told me at one point that he quit the company because he wanted to be in fashion, not fascism, as he put it. And it's one of the interesting things about Cambridge Analytica. Their original data team was a lot of young, gay, liberal men.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But they did obviously get into bed with the Mercers and Steve Bannon. Let's hear more of Wylie speaking to Channel 4 about how Steve Bannon, who was Trump's chief strategist, wanted to use this technology.
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WYLIE: Steve wanted weapons for his culture war. That's what he wanted. We offered him a way to accomplish what he wanted to do, which was change the culture of America.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So did this actually change people's mind? Could it really have this bold effect across America?
ROSENBERG: It's a big question. And I don't think we have the evidence to back that up at this point. You know, is this going to be able to work out in the future? Is the data going to be robust enough to be able to figure out the questions, figure out what personalities are and then advertise or market and micro-target at them? Perhaps. I mean, it certainly looks like we're moving in that direction. But I don't think in 2016 we really have the evidence to say that they had this dramatic change.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how does what you uncovered link to Robert Mueller's investigation into election interference?
ROSENBERG: So we know that that Mueller's team has asked Cambridge Analytica for all its documents and emails related to the Trump campaign. Exactly what they're looking for, we just don't know. You know, the Mueller investigation's a bit of a black box.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But your reporting showed that there is something interesting linking Cambridge Analytica to Russia.
ROSENBERG: So there are all kinds of kind of unexplained connections. At one point, in the summer of 2014, Lukoil, which is a Russian oil company that's tight with Putin's inner circle, showed up and started to talk to them about American voter data, which was - they thought was very odd. What does Lukoil, which has, like, two gas stations in the United States, want with American voter data or consumer data? It was - it didn't make a lot of sense. You know, Alexander Nix, who's chief executive, was recently in front of Parliament. He said they've never done any business in Russia full stop. But we found brochures for their parent company that says they do have business in Russia. And so it's just questions that aren't really answered there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Facebook's reaction to your reporting has been that they have banned Cambridge Analytica from their platform. And now there are some Congress people who are asking for an investigation.
ROSENBERG: I know Senator Klobuchar and Senator Warner have called for further investigation and to bring Facebook executives, even Zuckerberg, in to testify.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So not the end of this story - Matthew Rosenberg from the New York Times, thank you so much.
ROSENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.