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Cambridge Analytica 'specialized in disinformation,' former insider testifies

Cambridge Analytica's former research director told U.S. lawmakers May 16 that the data analytics firm at the center of a global scandal regarding user privacy on Facebook Inc. was a political machine that "specialized in disinformation, spreading rumors ... and propaganda."

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Cambridge Analytica and the Future of Data Privacy," Christopher Wylie, who served as the research director at Cambridge Analytica and its British parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories from mid-2013 to late-2014, said the firm worked to identify "mental and emotional vulnerabilities" in voters, such as neuroticism and racial biases, to influence election outcomes. He also said Cambridge Analytica had been in close contact with Lukoil, one of Russia's largest oil companies, among other foreign entities.

Wylie said he reported Cambridge Analytica's business practices to U.K. authorities months before Facebook said in March that it had suspended the accounts of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, as well as Wylie, for violating its personal data policies. Cambridge Analytica announced this month it would shut down and begin insolvency proceedings due to ramifications from the scandal.

Wylie said that U.K. authorities had confirmed he is not a suspect in ongoing investigations of Cambridge Analytica. The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are also investigating the now-defunct firm, The New York Times reported May 15.

Wylie alleged that Facebook was aware of Cambridge Analytica's activities, something that the company has denied. Senate Judiciary Committee members in April questioned Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg about bias on the platform and its involvement with Cambridge Analytica.

At the May 16 hearing, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., asked what role Congress should play in regulating social media companies and their data collection practices going forward.

"Do you believe that some of the technology players today simply have grown so large, so quickly ... kind of putting their thumb on the scale and giving people information that they really shouldn't if they were good stewards of the data?" Tillis asked.

While none of the hearing's three witnesses answered the question directly, Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, and Mark Jamison, director of the University of Florida's Public Utility Research Center, said that consumers are free to glean information from any social media site of their choosing. Facebook is the global leader in social media platforms, with 2.20 billion monthly active users as of March 31.

Other lawmakers expressed concerns about Cambridge Analytica's foreign ties and its targeting of certain voter groups, especially African-Americans.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked Wylie about his knowledge of the scope of the firm's racial targeting. Wylie said this practice began toward the end of his tenure at the company, but he recalled a few conversations about the company's efforts to disengage African American voters.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked about requiring social media companies to get consumers' informed consent before accessing their data.

"Do you think that's too much to ask for?" he said.

Wylie said that individuals should have informed consent, but he said that using social media platforms is often unavoidable for many individuals in social and workplace situations.