It is the digital information company that masterminded Donald Trump’s surprise electoral success and has been accused of playing a key role behind the scenes of the unlikely Brexit referendum in 2016.
It also allegedly tried to collude with WikiLeaks in 2016 in a bid to unearth Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails.
And in 2017, it wooed Australia’s Liberal Party, selling its brand of detailed voter profiling that can help political parties drill down into constituents’ lives and likes to win elections.
The company is Cambridge Analytica (CA), which uses data analysis and data mining in conjunction with strategic communications in election campaigns, and is seen by many as the masters in the sector.
But now the heat is firmly on the much-vaunted company, as it is ensnared in Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, and is grilled by British MPs over its role in the Brexit vote.
Chief executive Alexander Nix was this week questioned by a British parliamentary committee looking into the problem of “fake news”, specifically probing his company’s role in the Brexit campaign and how it may work to spread propaganda or disinformation.
But Mr Nix said claims about CA’s involvement in the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign were false.
“We dated each other, we had a couple of dinners, but we didn’t get married,” Mr Nix said.
But Leave.EU boss Arron Banks, who was watching the live stream of the hearing, tweeted that the group had not proceeded because CA had offered to raise millions of dollars from backers in the United States to help pay for its Brexit services – something which would be illegal under British electoral law.
CA wanted a fee of £1m to start work & then said they would raise £6m in the states. We declined the offer because it was illegal. https://t.co/SOcyA8UsUZ
— Arron Banks (@Arron_banks) February 27, 2018
Further, Mr Nix said, it had not used Facebook data, or “psychographic” modelling in its work in the US presidential election – a claim which seems unlikely, given CA’s stated modus operandi.
Mr Nix was also forced to address a claim by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that CA had approached the organisation to collaborate on the US election, specifically to secure material about Mrs Clinton’s deleted emails.
After initially denying any relationship, Mr Nix later confirmed that CA had reached out to Mr Assange.
“We received a message back saying, ‘No, they wouldn’t meet’,” Mr Nix said. “That was it.”
How does CA work?
CA collects general online data, such as Facebook likes and smartphone data to create psychological profiles of voters.
It gathers thousands of pieces of data to categorise voters into one or several of 150 possible psychological profiles, which then allows political parties and candidates to tailor their campaigns accordingly.
In 2016, Mr Nix boasted to Sky News: “Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual … So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.”
All of this information is collected mostly without the users’ permission or knowledge.
Problematic for CA has been that former senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Trump backer and reclusive hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer count among the company’s investors. (Mr Bannon reportedly sold his CA stake in April 2017.)
In May 2017, Time magazine alleged that CA may have co-ordinated the spread of Russian propaganda using its advanced digital technology.
And in December, the Wall Street Journal reported that special counsel Mr Mueller had requested that CA turn over emails of any staff who worked on the Trump campaign, as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections.
The New Daily has been unable to confirm the outcome of 2017 talks between CA and the Liberal Party.