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Cambridge Analytica’s reach went far beyond the U.S. elections

An election campaign billboard pictures Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto in Nairobi in August 2017. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

American voters have big questions about what role Cambridge Analytica, a London-based data firm, may have played in the 2016 election of President Trump.

The company, which consulted for Trump during the campaign, was rocked Friday by reports from the New York Times and Britain's Observer that it had improperly acquired data from Facebook users — prompting Facebook to ban the firm from its platform and British authorities to demand an explanation.

But Cambridge Analytica may be an issue not only for Americans and Britons. The firm claims to have worked in a wide range of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Kenya, Malaysia and Mexico. Politicians in several of those countries are calling for investigations of the company's work and local partners are distancing themselves.

That list comes directly from the company's representatives, who were recently filmed by an undercover reporter from Britain's Channel 4 News. The journalist presented himself as a potential client, a representative of a wealthy Sri Lankan family eager to increase its political influence. During meetings over four months, Cambridge Analytica employees touted their work worldwide.

Although criticism of Cambridge Analytica focus on its alleged use of data harvested from social media sites, the firm's chief executive, Alexander Nix, appeared to condone using bribes and sexual blackmail to help swing elections. “Please don't pay too much attention to what I'm saying,” Nix said over drinks with Channel 4's reporter at a West London hotel. “I'm just giving you examples of what can be done and what has been done.”

Cambridge Analytica was founded in 2013, but it is affiliated with an older company called SCL Group, an established British firm that has operated since 1993. According to its website, SCL Group has “conducted behavioral change programs in over 60 countries,” describing itself as a service that provides data, analytics and strategy to “governments and military organizations worldwide.”

SCL Group formed Cambridge Analytica five years ago to participate in American politics; the company is partly owned by Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager and billionaire. But the company's website lists offices in Malaysia and Brazil along with those the United States and Britain, and its activities extend far beyond U.S. borders.

Cambridge Analytica's alleged role in last year's chaotic Kenyan elections already has come under scrutiny. Last year, the firm refused to confirm to confirm to Kenyan reporters what role it was playing there, and its website refers only to its work in data analysis and surveys during the 2013 election cycle. But in Channel 4's undercover footage, Mark Turnbull, the managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, said the company “ran” Kenyatta's campaigns in 2013 and 2017.

“We have re-branded the entire party twice, rewritten their manifesto, done two rounds of 50,000 surveys,” Turnbull said, later adding that the firm had been involved in “just about every element of his campaign.”

Kenyatta won the August election, the result of which was contested by the opposition and then annulled by Kenya's Supreme Court. Kenyatta then won the October revote after his challenger, Raila Odinga, refused to participate. As in previous years, protests and violence broke out around the elections. At least 92 Kenyans died.

Last year's elections were especially noteworthy for the use of social-media-friendly attack ads, a powerful new medium in the country. Privacy International, a London-registered charity, found that an American digital media company called Harris Media LLC had helped created these online campaigns for Kenyatta. Like Cambridge Analytica, Harris Media worked on the Trump campaign in 2016, and the Texas-based firm also has worked for far-right groups such as Alternative for Germany in Europe.

Kenyan opposition leaders are now calling for an inquiry into Cambridge Analytica's involvement in Kenyan politics, and other nations are likely to follow suit regarding their own elections. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has denied claims that his government worked with Cambridge Analytica, instead accusing his rival Mahathir Mohamad’s son of using its services.

Australian political parties also have denied using the firm, although a former minister responsible for cybersecurity told SBS that he had met Nix and other Cambridge Analytica representatives at a “private dinner.” An Australian off-shoot of the company deregistered its name and distanced itself from Cambridge Analytica on Tuesday, the Guardian reported.

In Brazil, a local partner has also distanced itself from Cambridge Analytica and renamed itself to avoid any link to the troubled data firm. Formerly known as CA Ponte, the company will go back to being called its original name, “A Ponte Estratégia,” BuzzFeed reported. “Ponte is keen to make it clear that in 10 years of acting, we have always been guided by ethics and transparency in our business,” the firm's president, André Torretta, said in a statement.

In India, there has been renewed scrutiny of SCL Group's 2010 work in an assembly election in the state of Bihar. The Hindustan Times also reported Friday that Cambridge Analytica and its Indian partner have been in talks with both the governing Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Indian National Congress ahead of national elections next year.

The full extent of such work is unknown. In footage from Channel 4, Turnbull suggested that Cambridge Analytica had used “a different organization to run a very, very successful project in an eastern European country,” adding that it had “ghosted in, did the work, ghosted out and produced really, really good material.” The country was not named.

Nix pushed back against Channel 4's report over the weekend, saying that his talk of bribery and other underhanded tactics captured on video were “ludicrous hypothetical scenarios” designed to get the measure of a potential client.

But broader global scrutiny of the company's work is now inevitable — and companies such as Facebook, which helped provide Cambridge Analytica with troves of data about voters worldwide, could face a reckoning, as well.

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