The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the life and death of Cambridge Analytica tells us about politics — and ourselves

Cambridge Analytica's now former office in London. (Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

The demise of Cambridge Analytica this week may bring a fleeting sense of relief to those worried about personal data being used to shape how they vote, or even the outcome of entire elections. But the larger lesson of the scandal that brought down one of President Trump’s campaign vendors is that politics and data are now inextricably linked — with or without Cambridge Analytica in the picture.

Cambridge Analytica, as it made clear in its farewell news release on Wednesday, was part of a much broader development in politics — a world increasingly fueled by vast troves of personal data that billions of Internet users emit every day. The company said it was being unfairly singled out for doing things that are “widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas.”

In a world with few laws governing how data is used, some of the ashes of Cambridge Analytica already are being resurrected in a new firm, with some of the same key people, in a British company, Emerdata.

Even without Cambridge Analytica or Emerdata, politicians now have the tools to target us each individually — based on data suggesting our race, religion, income, shopping habits, sexual orientation, medical concerns, personality traits, current location, past locations, pet preference or Zodiac sign if they'd like. The implosion of Cambridge Analytica has made clear how politics often works in our increasingly digital world.

The trove of documents shared publicly by the company’s former research director, Christopher Wylie, illustrates that granular personal data on each of us can be used to create precise messages to any individual voter, then delivered to us through the online ecosystem over Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter and other free services. Such tactics have long been standard in commerce -- ever noticed how ads for those nice hiking boots keep following you around the Web? -- but all these tactics of manipulation are equally available to those working in largely unregulated political realms too.

Politicians hired Cambridge Analytica to use this technology to shape events in many countries across the world. That includes places, like Kenya and Nigeria, where democracy is new and fragile, and places like Britain and the United States, where there is less of an expectation of voter manipulation.

Though there has long been skepticism about whether Cambridge Analytica was as effective as it claimed, experts expect this technology to only improve, especially as artificial intelligence and virtual reality steadily grow more powerful. The era of campaign season “deep fakes” -- imagine a convincing but phony clip of a politician doing something appalling -- is not far off.

Even as Cambridge Analytica announced bankruptcy, regulators around the world pledged they would continue investigating the company. In the United Kingdom, the country’s top data-protection authority, the Information Commissioner’s Office, said in a statement it would “pursue individuals and directors, as appropriate and necessary even where companies may no longer be operating.”

Yet longtime watchers of these issues take little comfort in Cambridge Analytica’s decision to declare bankruptcy. Jonathan Albright, a social media analyst who has been studying the company for nearly two years, saw it as little more than a legal maneuver.

“Cambridge Analytica's business entity — an unincorporated LLC — is the natural target of lawsuits. Dissolving the company greatly reduces the legal and financial liabilities associated with its data mishandling practices in the future,” said Albright, research director a Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Yet it’s not even clear that the people who created Cambridge Analytica are leaving this field. As freelance journalist Wendy Siegelman and Business Insider reported in March, two members of the Mercer family -- major backers of conservative political causes whose money and management was key to Cambridge Analytica from the beginning — have joined the board of Emerdata.

According to British public filings, Emerdata was incorporated in August 2017 and Rebekah Mercer and her sister were appointed to its board on March 20 of this year, days after news broke of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The filings show that suspended Cambridge Analytica CEO, Alexander Nixbriefly served on the board of Emerdata, alongside Johnson Ko, a partner of Trump ally Erik Prince.

Filings also show that Julian Wheatland, chairman of Cambridge Analytica parent company, SCL Group, and Cambridge Analytica’s data officer, Alexander Tayler, were both people with “significant control” of Emerdata at the time of its creation. The company’s incorporation documents say Emerdata is a company that specializes in “data processing, hosting and related activities,” very similar to the work of Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica, meanwhile, appeared to leave the door open to selling its data and other key assets to some other company. The privacy policy for Cambridge Analytica, last updated in April 2017, said that “personal data held about its registered supporters will be one of the transferred assets.”

But focusing on the known actors in this drama potentially obscures the larger issues at play. We know that a Cambridge University researcher collected granular Facebook data on 87 million people in 2014 and shared it with Cambridge Analytica, according to Facebook. Yet we also know that the tactics the researcher used were commonplace in these years, and some in the industry estimate that thousands of app developers did essentially the same thing -- and we have no idea what happened to all of that data.

(Cambridge Analytica and others involved in the collection of Facebook data says it has destroyed it all, but there's no way to verify if it's all gone or lingering somewhere unknown. Data is easy to hide.)

Still more broadly, the Internet as it has evolved over the past couple of decades is essentially a data gathering machine, in which we all trade information about ourselves -- our likes and dislikes, what we look at on the Web, our countless online utterances -- in exchange for free services we need, or merely enjoy.

Now Cambridge Analytica has shown that this all powers more than mere advertising for cellphones or dog food. This data-gathering machinery can be used to shape who we vote for, or whether we vote at all, or how we make choices on big referendums, such as whether Britain leaves the European Union.

Even though some close watchers of the digital economy have been warning about this danger for years, the stakes look bigger now that Cambridge Analytica has revealed the full nature of the trade-off we all have been making: We give up data for free stuff. Tech companies make billions of dollars by selling advertising based on what they learn about us. Those advertisers then try to get us to do things -- buy stuff, vote for people, vote against other people.

"The idea of targeting, or trying to get a particular behavior, that's not new -- that's advertising," said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think fundamentally what the Cambridge Analytica incident revealed was that there was a lot of data being collected, [and] consumers largely are not always aware of what was collected on them or how it was being used."

This is an ecosystem in which we long have been willing participants. Yet the recent public uproar and congressional hearings show that our role in this ecosystem has both surprised and alarmed many people.

Cambridge Analytica is vanishing from view, but the increasingly common political art it practiced is not.