Cloak and data: The real story behind Cambridge Analytica's rise and fall - 2018-03-23
In the late summer of 2015, Chris Wilson, the director of research, analytics, and digital strategy for Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, had a conversation with a contractor that left him furious. A widely respected pollster who had taken leave from his firm to work full time for Cruz, Wilson oversaw a team of more than 40 data scientists, developers, and digital marketers, one of the largest departments inside Cruz's Houston-based operation. The Iowa caucuses were fast approaching, and the Cruz campaign had poured nearly $13 million into winning the opening contest of the primary season.
As the campaign laid the groundwork for Iowa, a sizable chunk of its spending—$4.4 million and counting—flowed to a secretive company with British roots named Cambridge Analytica. A relative newcomer to American politics, the firm sold itself as the latest, greatest entrant into the burgeoning field of political technology. It claimed to possess detailed profiles on 230 million American voters based on up to 5,000 data points, everything from where you live to whether you own a car, your shopping habits and voting record, the medications you take, your religious affiliation, and the TV shows you watch. This data is available to anyone with deep pockets. But Cambridge professed to bring a unique approach to the microtargeting techniques that have become de rigueur in politics. It promised to couple consumer information with psychological data, harvested from social-media platforms and its own in-house survey research, to group voters by personality type, pegging them as agreeable or neurotic, confrontational or conciliatory, leaders or followers. It would then target these groups with specially tailored images and messages, delivered via Facebook ads, glossy mailers, or in-person interactions. The company's CEO, a polo-playing Eton graduate named Alexander Nix, called it "our secret sauce."
As a rule, Nix said his firm generally steered clear of working in British politics to avoid controversy in its own backyard. But it had no qualms applying its mind-bending techniques to a foreign electorate. "It's someone else's political system," explains one former Cambridge employee, a British citizen. "It's not ours. None of us would ever consider doing what we were doing here."