The New York Times has a detailed report on how a single defense contracting idea turned into the huge Cambridge Analytica data-stealing scandal the entire globe is aware of today:
As a start-up called Cambridge Analytica sought to harvest the Facebook data of tens of millions of Americans in summer 2014, the company received help from at least one employee at Palantir Technologies, a top Silicon Valley contractor to American spy agencies and the Pentagon.
It was a Palantir employee in London, working closely with the data scientists building Cambridge’s psychological profiling technology, who suggested the scientists create their own app — a mobile-phone-based personality quiz — to gain access to Facebook users’ friend networks, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
Cambridge ultimately took a similar approach. By early summer, the company found a university researcher to harvest data using a personality questionnaire and Facebook app. The researcher scraped private data from over 50 million Facebook users — and Cambridge Analytica went into business selling so-called psychometric profiles of American voters, setting itself on a collision course with regulators and lawmakers in the United States and Britain.
It should come as no surprise Palantir is somehow peripherally involved in this operation. The company was founded by a number of extremely intelligent and influential Silicon Valley folks, funded by CIA’s In-Q-Tel venture capital arm, and primarily focuses on business with the United States Intelligence Community and other global intelligence agencies like UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
Palantir’s expertise is data science, sometimes using shady tactics, and the Cambridge Analytica operations was definitely both. Leveraging the access provided by Facebook was a smart technique for collecting data, analyzing it, and then generating psychological profiles of various political leanings. This ultimately resulted in what we know today: targeted advertising and propaganda with the intent of poisoning one candidate, in the hopes of increasing the viability of another. And it worked. Very well.
The revelations pulled Palantir — co-founded by the wealthy libertarian Peter Thiel — into the furor surrounding Cambridge, which improperly obtained Facebook data to build analytical tools it deployed on behalf of Donald J. Trump and other Republican candidates in 2016. Mr. Thiel, a supporter of President Trump, serves on the board at Facebook.
“There were senior Palantir employees that were also working on the Facebook data,” said Christopher Wylie, a data expert and Cambridge Analytica co-founder, in testimony before British lawmakers on Tuesday.
Peter Thiel being on the board of both companies, and a co-Founder of Palantir, seems extremely shady and problematic. The optics appear as if he may have had some inside knowledge of Facebook’s data platform deficiencies, and then potentially shared that information with Cambridge Analytica through Palantir. This would have been one method for CA to learn about techniques for exploiting Facebook user data. But I have not seen any strong evidence to backup this claim, only circumstantial discussions.
This story is not even close to being fully exposed. I suspect there is a lot more we will learn within the coming weeks as new revelations are revealed.