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Before Trump, Cambridge Analytica’s parent built weapons for war

How the parent company of Trump’s campaign firm plied its skills on the battlefield and in elections, while working for the U.S., the U.K., and NATO.

Before Trump, Cambridge Analytica’s parent built weapons for war
[Illustration: Jesse Witt]

Revelations of dirty tricks and illicitly-harvested Facebook profiles turned Cambridge Analytica into a global symbol for the dark side of big data. Its actual impact on the insurgent victories of Trump and Brexit, however, remains one of many mysteries surrounding the disgraced political consultancy. Cambridge’s sophisticated-sounding electioneering tactics seemed to rely as much upon hype and marketing whimsy as they did upon behavioral science, Facebook ads, and murky pools of data.

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But Cambridge Analytica’s brand of political warfare also had roots in military-funded psychological operations projects, raising concerns that it could serve as a template for political campaigns around the world for decades to come. As its London-based parent company, SCL Group, worked on elections, it simultaneously developed a set of techniques to battle extremism and disinformation for a range of government agencies, including the British Foreign Office, the Norwegian Government Defense Research Agency, the British Army’s 15 Psychological Operations Group, and multiple entities within the U.S. defense sector, according to interviews and documents seen by Fast Company.

The companies’ mix of work demonstrates how readily-available data and military-funded psychological research can be exploited to wage domestic political warfare, says Emma Briant, a scholar of propaganda at Bard College who has studied SCL for years. “Personnel and methodological insights were shared and informed the behavioral methodology SCL Elections deployed in numerous elections, and SCL’s global experience shaped the formation of a digital strategy that crystallized in the abuses of Cambridge Analytica,” she says.

The conglomerate has sunk under bankruptcies, lawsuits, and investigations. But unethical—if not illegal—influence operations persist across the internet, powered by state-sponsored actors and an unregulated industry of influence peddlers. During elections, tactics intended for battlefields can be used to foment division and extremism or discourage voters, Briant warns.

“The risks of influence industry companies adapting military-funded techniques or repurposing data and its derivative models have not been focused on enough, and there have been few questions raised over how U.S., U.K. and NATO government procurement and oversight for contractors can be strengthened,” she says. “Oversight, transparency and reporting were clearly not fit for purpose.”

Alongside defense contracts, some of SCL’s government work aimed to enhance stability and disseminate propaganda. Last year, the New York Times reported that a subsidiary was hired by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to build a “psychological road map” of its citizenry and test reform plans by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, like legalizing cinemas and allowing women to drive.

In 2017—as one company researched Islamic extremism for the U.S. State Department and another waged a covert, controversial reelection campaign for the Kenyan president—a newer company, SCL Social, microtargeted diplomats during the United Nations General Assembly with #BoycottQatar messages on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google. Months later, the subsidiary retroactively registered as a foreign lobbyist on behalf of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar’s leading rival, which paid SCL $333,000 for the campaign.

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SCL touted two decades of experience in marketing, electioneering, and data analysis across the globe when, in 2013, it helped launch Cambridge Analytica as a U.S.-focused political subsidiary. With the backing of billionaire donor Robert Mercer and the guidance of future Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the company would go on to work for John Bolton’s super PAC and dozens of right-wing candidates before joining the campaigns for Ted Cruz and Trump.

As SCL’s military-focused subsidiaries sought government contracts, the company capitalized on a revolving-door culture and cultivated close ties to defense officials. SCL’s officers and advisers have included modern psychological operations commanders, members of the inner circle of Margaret Thatcher’s administration, and Trump national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

In December 2016, around the time of Flynn’s brief consultancy for SCL, the firm signed a half-million dollar counter-terrorism contract with the US State Dept. That month in London, the CEO of Cambridge had an off-the-record, undisclosed meeting with then-Foreign Secretary and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The sitdown was followed by SCL’s appearance at a closed-door Foreign Office event on data analytics in early 2017. By that year’s end, SCL Insight, the conglomerate’s only surviving subsidiary, began work on a contract for unspecified data analysis on behalf of the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

Information operations missions tend to be shrouded under the cover of national security, and government agencies have been tight-lipped about their work with SCL. But within the defense establishment, the company’s capabilities were respected. The British government gave SCL “List X” status until 2013, granting it access to classified documents, and for a time the company’s techniques were considered to be under export control. In a 2016 memo, U.S. State Dept. officials argued that SCL deserved to win a contract, worth roughly half a million dollars, because its methods were considered unparalleled.

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“There are no other companies that can compete with SCL in gathering the necessary data and analyzing it in a way that permits the design of effective, data-driven influence campaigns,” officials wrote in the July 2016 memo, which was released in heavily redacted form to the Center on Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative news organization. The officials cited SCL’s “unique qualifications and special capabilities in designing influence campaigns that work,” but said that “evidence of those capabilities would need to be kept secret in order not to compromise national security or create other security risks.”

Among the clients SCL mentioned in its promotional materials was Sandia National Laboratories, a leading Pentagon research and development partner. Last year a Sandia spokesperson told Bloomberg that the laboratories had never formally worked with SCL. But documents show Sandia collaborations with SCL on counterextremism projects between 2007 and 2012, including “an in-depth behavior change study in relation to violent extremism in South and Southeast Asia.” In a more recent interview with Fast Company, a Sandia spokesperson confirmed the partnership. “Sandia unintentionally muddied those waters” due to “human error,” they said.

The disclosures last year about Cambridge Analytica’s elections work by whistleblower Christopher Wylie—drawn out by reporting from journalist Carole Cadwalladr and Channel 4—recently culminated in a record $5 billion Federal Trade Commission fine against Facebook and a $100 million Securities and Exchange Commission fine over privacy violations. In July, the FTC sued Cambridge over “deceptive practices,” and as part of a probe into the company—one of a number of ongoing investigations—the agency is investigating Bannon’s involvement. The Great Hack, a documentary about the scandal, has become a hit on Netflix and earned a legal threat from Brexit-funder Banks.

David Carroll, who sued SCL over access to his personal data, laments that “the same company doing voter analytics is doing counterpropaganda work for the State Department.” [Photo: courtesy of Netflix]
One of the film’s protagonists is David Carroll, a professor at the New School in New York who sued SCL last year in order to obtain his personal data. Cambridge claimed to have 5,000 data points, including psychological scores, on most American voters, and Carroll is still trying to obtain his file. And he is still concerned about the ways that tactics for information warfare—intended for countering terrorists and propagandists—can be exploited for political campaigns.

“The most shocking and disturbing and distressing part was not the psychometrics, but the porous boundaries between SCL and Cambridge Analytica, and knowing what those companies were,” he said. “That there was basically an entity with security classifications in multiple countries working also in elections—it was just astonishing that this was allowed to happen, and nobody thought this would be a really bad, bad idea.”


Former executives insist there was no connection between the defense and political sides of SCL’s businesses. But documents also show that the companies had a small group of common shareholders and often functioned like separate office departments, sharing staff, finances, data, and tactics. In a report last year on the Brexit campaign, the British data regulator examined Cambridge, SCL Elections and AggregateIQ, a Canadian firm affiliated with SCL, and found “a permeability between the companies above and beyond what would normally be expected to be seen.” When SCL Group acquired a 30% stake in Cambridge Analytica’s U.K. holding company in 2015, the company may have become the first military contractor to be involved in a U.S. presidential election.

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Two projects that year illustrated the complicated mix of the conglomerate’s work.

In May 2015, nearly two dozen NATO-affiliated military analysts and psychologists arrived in Riga, Latvia, to learn how to better fight Russian disinformation campaigns across Europe and the Baltics. The two-month course was taught by SCL, and the subject, according to a statement from the NATO StratCom Center of Excellence, was Target Audience Analysis: a “scientific application, [that] involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behavior.”

TAA is a central component of U.S. and European information warfare missions, and the technique was SCL’s specialty. “Significantly, the methodology increases the resilience of susceptible audiences and enables them to withstand foreign propaganda effects,” the Center said in a statement.

Canada paid SCL $754,800 for the course, the first and only project that SCL conducted for the Center, a spokesperson told Fast Company. “Canada is delighted to fund this unique and world-class training course which will act as a real counter to the insidious Russian propaganda,” Canada’s ambassador to Latvia, Alain Hausser said at a launch event in Riga.

Weeks after SCL’s NATO training, executives from Cambridge were pitching TAA for another purpose: helping to microtarget British voters with pro-Brexit messages.

“As we discussed, we will make sure that the Target Audience Analysis (TAA) suits the purposes of Leave as well as [UKIP, the UK Independence Party] and we will try to seed some questions into the survey that will help inform future study of insurance risk profiling,” SCL executive Julian Wheatland wrote in a December 2015 email to the CEO of Leave.EU. “Once we have completed the TAA and matched it to the Experian data we will be in a position to start microtargeting and, at that time, we would propose that we start digital outreach and a program of voter engagement and fundraising,” he wrote.

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While lawmakers could not determine if money changed hands between Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica, documents show the company performed data analysis for the campaign, and Aggregate IQ was paid to microtarget voters for other pro-Brexit campaign groups. Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance, a firm owned by Leave.EU funder Arron Banks, were fined a total of $150,000 earlier this year for data breaches during the campaign, amid ongoing U.K. investigations.

SCL’s behavioral influence and microtargeting techniques are increasingly commonplace in digital electioneering, but some of the firm’s tactics boasted a common source, an in-house research group called the Behavioral Dynamics Institute. Launched by SCL’s founder, Nigel Oakes, in the early 1990s, BDI claimed several leading psychologists and strategists among its contributors, and helped develop tools to understand audiences and shape behaviors for “militaries, NGOs or political parties,” according to one BDI paper. It had “invested over £19m in developing scientific approaches for ‘influencing a target audience,'” it claimed.

The cornerstone of Oakes’ arsenal was Target Audience Analysis. “Using advanced research techniques, the BDi can accurately diagnose an audience from within (in theatre) or remotely,” its now-deleted website stated, in an apparent reference to theaters of war. “The Behavioural Dynamics Institute can tell you how ‘difficult’ an audience is likely to be, how best to influence the audience and then can actually produce the communications or triggers that will change the audience.”

In a research paper for the U.S. Army, Steve Tatham, a former British naval expert in psychological operations who was working closely with SCL at the time, wrote that TAA is focused on identifying “key groups—who may not yet have emerged—through accurate behavioral profiling of groups,” and ranking them by their respective influence and susceptibility to influence, “key information for policymakers to know in advance.”

Plus, Tatham wrote in a NATO strategic communications journal, “TAA can be undertaken covertly. Audience groups are not necessarily aware that they are the research subjects and government’s role and/or third parties can be invisible.”

Wheatland, who helped manage the pitch to Leave.EU and eventually served as Cambridge Analytica’s final CEO, has dismissed any connection between the companies’ defense and political work. He blames the confusion on the inflated sales pitches of former Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix.

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“The idea that somehow SCL took military-grade technology and turned it to [political] influence was fantasy,” he said in a recent interview. “But it was fantasy that got air time, not least because Alexander used to like to talk about the defense business as a way of marketing the elections business. There was never any operational overlap between the two.”

Oakes and Nix did not respond to requests for comment. During testimony before a Parliamentary committee last year, Nix said there was no connection between the elections and defense businesses. Oakes has remained largely out of public view in the wake of his company’s collapse, and said little publicly.

“I wonder if part of that is because he doesn’t feel as though he was part of, or responsible for, what Alexander Nix went and did with some of these behavioral techniques at Cambridge Analytica,” said Sven Hughes, a former reservist in Afghanistan with the British Army’s psychological operations group who worked for SCL nearly a decade ago.

Oakes addressed the question in a podcast interview last year with Hughes. “This weapon system wasn’t used in the American election, and it was actually no longer my company that was involved in it,” the SCL founder told Hughes. Previously, however, Oakes had boasted that the proprietary methodologies assembled at SCL were integral to those of Cambridge Analytica. In a 2017 interview with Briant, the propaganda scholar, he exclaimed, “Without this, you couldn’t do any of that!”

Briant, author of a forthcoming book on Cambridge Analytica and the digital influence industry, Propaganda Machine, has warned British and American lawmakers that BDI’s influence weapons pose a danger beyond the battlefield, and there are no rules governing their use in elections.

“SCL’s counter-terrorism projects for Western governments through BDI informed their methodological understandings of the psychology of extremism as well as how to counter it,” she tells Fast Company. “If Nix had access to these methodological insights, that’s worrying.”

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In the interview with Hughes, Oakes sounded regretful about the misuse of his arsenal. “I don’t want it to be used for negative reasons and non-ethical purposes, and maybe using it for commercial purposes is non-ethical. Maybe using it for political or election-winning purposes is unethical. But for many years, I operated without much of an ethical radar because I was just so impressed that we’d got something that actually worked, in an environment where so much didn’t… I was very excited that we had a gun that worked.”


Oakes, a former DJ and ad exec, launched SCL in London in the early ’90s as Strategic Communications Laboratories, a behavioral-research, government messaging, and marketing consultancy. After the attacks of Sept. 11, he plunged the firm into military work, and in 2005 made a splash at the U.K.’s largest defense expo, in a fashion familiar to spy movie fans: with a high-tech “OpCentre” exhibit covered in video screens. “We used to be in the business of mindbending for political purposes,” he told the Guardian at the time, “but now we are in the business of saving lives.'”

The idea was to show potential government clients how media could be used “to help orchestrate a sophisticated campaign of mass deception” on the public of a big city like London, Slate reported. Oakes’s arsenal also included a wealth of powerful connections. Alongside investors like the property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz, many of its officers hailed from the upper ranks of the British Conservative Party’s defense establishment. One of SCL’s early directors was Lord Ivar Mountbatten, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. Oakes’s talent for hype didn’t hurt: the operations center mockup was actually a set designed by a team who worked on the James Bond movie GoldenEye.

Cambridge Analytica was reportedly born aboard Sea Owl, Robert Mercer’s yacht. [Photo: Alex Pasternack]
But SCL’s pitch also fit with an increasingly popular approach among military leaders like Flynn: Modern irregular warfare would depend not just on bombs and bullets but on hearts and minds. And during a post-9/11 period that was profitable for private military contractors and psychological operators, SCL stood out with its enviable staff of experienced military veterans and its ability to stay under the radar. That was also appealing at the Pentagon: In a 2004 report on strategic communications, the Defense Science Board recommended that more reliance should be made on contractors, who it noted had a “built-in agility, credibility and even deniability.”

But amid a flood of new contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, SCL also separated itself from other defense firms due to its simultaneous pursuit of political work. Before it entered the U.S. electoral market, a variety of its branches worked on political campaigns and surveys in countries including Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria, where, it once boasted on its website, it ran a “voter-suppression” effort.

In the years after its reboot, SCL’s election work—increasingly under the guidance of Nix—grew at a better rate than its defense portfolio. Some of the firm’s campaigns in the Commonwealth Caribbean during that time have earned the scrutiny of British lawmakers, who wrote last year that the campaigns “were not financed in a transparent way, overstepping legal and ethical boundaries.” In those former British territories, SCL chose its clients on behalf of interests connected to the global passport investment industry, using those contracts to test and refine dubious campaign tactics, as the Spectator and Fast Company reported.

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Related: Cambridge Analytica quietly worked on fake news-fueled Kenyan election


In 2013, SCL found its way into U.S. politics, thanks, reportedly, to a fortuitous encounter: a former Air Force officer and a pair of Republican advisers wound up seated next to each other on a cross-country flight.

The advisers were Mark Block and Linda Hansen, who had recently run the ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign for GOP candidate Herman Cain. Their efforts for Cain had earned ridicule and a nickname for Block—”the Smoking Man”—after an offbeat TV ad featured his comically earnest drag of a cigarette. As luck would have it, the military veteran next to them happened to be subcontracting at SCL, a British government contractor looking for U.S. political clients. “They do cyberwarfare for elections,” the vet told the consultants, according to a company email.

Block arranged a meeting with Nix, then CEO of SCL Elections, to pitch the company’s electioneering services to Mercer, the conservative donor and Breitbart owner. Shortly after the 2013 meeting—on the Hudson River, aboard Sea Owl, Mercer’s megayacht—the semi-billionaire hedge fund whiz made the $15 million startup investment that would birth Cambridge Analytica. Nix would be CEO of the new firm, and Bannon, who was also in attendance, was given a stake in Cambridge and appointed a vice president and board member.

With an initial boost from new SCL sales executives Block and Hansen, Cambridge Analytica soon began slinging its psychological influence and data tools to Republican midterm political campaigns. Nix claimed 44 paying U.S. clients in 2014 alone, including several backed by current Trump national security adviser John Bolton, as well as three 2016 presidential candidates: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and, ultimately, Trump.

Social media advertisements, targeted according to a voter’s psychological profile, placed by CA for the John Bolton Super PAC during 2015 campaigns. [Screenshot: courtesy of Center for Public Integrity]
The following year, a group billing itself as “Cambridge Analytica, in partnership with SCL Elections” began working on U.S. congressional campaigns for the John Bolton super PAC. Using voter profiles gleaned from focus groups, phone surveys, AggregateIQ software, Facebook data, and psychographic models, the companies analyzed target audiences and created a series of anti-immigration and pro-military advertisements in support of hawkish Republican candidates like Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner, and Thom Tillis.

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“Primarily concerned with promoting [Bolton’s] agenda with regards to national defence and foreign policy, the PAC made use of significant input from SCL on messaging and target audiences, with positive results,” read a 2014 post-election report, released last year by the Center for Public Integrity. “Respondents [who] had been targeted with Bolton Super PAC messaging on foreign policy and national security showed a significant increase in their awareness of these subjects.”

Social media advertisements, targeted according to psychological profile, placed by CA for the John Bolton Super PAC during 2015 campaigns. [Screenshot: courtesy of Center for Public Integrity]
By mid-2015, Cambridge was making use of data unwittingly collected from millions of Facebook users in order to hone its targeting methods and build its infamous psychographic models. The company contends it deleted its cache of ill-gotten Facebook data by 2016, but as late as November 2016, some of Cambridge Analytica’s political and commercial campaigns targeted audiences on Facebook and Instagram that were named by personality trait.

As it worked on the Cruz campaign, Cambridge was also angling to work on the Leave.EU campaign to push Britain out of the European Union. The discussions with Leave.EU began in October 2015, and several meetings took place over a four-month period, with Bannon included on many emails. When Leave.EU lost its bid to become the official pro-Brexit campaign, AggregateIQ was brought on to do crucial online advertising and voter profiling for the winner, Vote Leave. AggregateIQ, or AIQ, had been a close partner of SCL since its birth: it was specifically created in 2013 to assist SCL with work on Trinidad and Tobago’s 2013 presidential election.

Parliament member Ian Lucas told Fast Company that AIQ’s work on Brexit warrants further examination by the House of Commons. “The Electoral Commission here found that Vote Leave colluded with other Leave organisations to avoid spending limits and thereby broke electoral law. AIQ was the conduit for this and we know they had close relations with SCL and CA,” he said in an email.

One roadblock is former Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings, who has refused to give testimony regarding his oversight of AggregateIQ’s activities during the campaign. Cummings currently serves as senior adviser to Prime Minister Johnson, and is said to be behind Johnson’s controversial move to rapidly gather “targeted and personalized information” from users of government websites ahead of the Brexit deadline in October.

Soon before his cabinet appointment, Cummings was found to be in contempt of Parliament for his refusal to provide testimony regarding the actions of Vote Leave and AggregateIQ. “Boris Johnson has not replied to my request to tell Cummings to give evidence to the [Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] Committee,” Lucas wrote earlier this month.

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After the 2016 U.S. election, as Cambridge announced plans to focus on commercial clients, SCL redoubled its efforts to win government contracts. In December 2016, just a month after Trump’s victory, the conglomerate won its biggest U.S. job in years: a $496,000 no-bid State Dept. contract that tasked SCL with interviewing potential terrorist recruits in Europe and the former Soviet Union. The project was for the Global Engagement Center, a State Dept. office focused on countering digital propaganda, but “the interviews and research that SCL conducted for the GEC did not rely on or use social media data,” a State Department official told Fast Company.

The contract raised eyebrows because it was agreed to shortly after SCL enlisted Trump’s then soon-to-be national security adviser Lieutenant General Mike Flynn as a consultant. SCL has said the advisory role—only disclosed by Flynn nine months later in an amended disclosure form—lasted from days before the election until December 2016 but involved no payment and no actual work. Two months later, Flynn would be forced to resign from the White House over his contacts with foreign officials and retroactively register as a foreign agent.

Another D.C. tie-up that overlapped with Flynn’s consultancy drew the attention of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. In December 2016, Cambridge Analytica formed a strategic partnership with PSY-Group, a now-notorious communications firm founded by former Israeli intelligence officials, “in a joint bid to win business from the U.S. government and other clients,” according to Bloomberg. As part of their partnership, the companies crafted a proposal, focused on the deradicalization of ISIS sympathizers, for the Global Engagement Center, the same State Department office that had recently hired SCL. The State Department declined to answer questions about the PSY-Group proposal, or about the circumstances surrounding its contract with SCL.

In February 2017, SCL redoubled its lobbying efforts when it hired Kirsten Fontenrose, a then-recently retired GEC official, as a consultant. After helping the firm make the rounds in D.C., Fontenrose joined the White House in March 2018 as senior director for Gulf affairs under then national security adviser John Bolton, a former Cambridge Analytica client. While in the middle of talks with Saudi Arabia in November, she abruptly parted ways with the administration. Fontenrose did not respond to a request for comment.

By May, the company had established a new outpost in Arlington, Virginia, focused on U.S. defense work and led by a former Pentagon colleague of Flynn’s. The new company, Anaxi Solutions, began competing for some $60 million in contracts, including national security projects for the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Technical Information Center, and the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, according to a company road map.

In less than a year, however, the scandal was in full swing, engulfing all of SCL. After Anaxi was seized in U.S. bankruptcy proceedings in April 2018, many of its data scientists and executive moved to another established federal contractor that has worked for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, the SEC, and the Treasury Department.

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As bankruptcies and investigations continue, the techniques SCL trumpeted persist in the form of dozens of other ex-employees, new firms, and an influence industry eager to tap behavioral science and big data.

Mark Turnbull, a former Analytica executive who bragged about SCL’s clandestine political operations during a hidden-camera exposé by Channel 4, joined the firm after years managing a key office at the similarly discredited and shuttered public relations giant Bell Pottinger. Turnbull has gone on to form a Middle East-focused strategic communications agency, Auspex International, cofounded by a former director of Emerdata, an SCL holding company.

More recently, a former Cambridge Analytica psychologist started Capuchin, a marketing firm that aims to use psychographics and facial coding to profile populations for international NGOs and political campaigns. And Cambridge Analytica’s former head of product founded Data Propria, an analytics firm staffed by former CA data scientists that worked with the Republican National Committee in 2018. He also leads Parscale Digital, which works for the Trump reelection campaign and was founded by Brad Parscale, the campaign’s manager.

Cambridge Analytica and SCL remain under investigation by the F.B.I., the Justice Department, and British authorities. In April 2018, Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, addressed letters to SCL and the State Dept., asking for a thorough historical breakdown of SCL’s global political activities and government contracts, as well as detailed descriptions of the work that Michael Flynn performed as an advisor for SCL. A spokesperson for Menendez’s office said it had not heard a response from SCL and declined to comment on the response it received from the State Dept.


Related: Ted Cruz is still using a blacklisted Cambridge Analytica app developer


To Carroll, who sued Cambridge Analytica for his data, SCL and its offshoots demonstrate the perils of weak digital privacy laws and expansive corporate secrecy. Limited liability companies, or LLCs, “can be used to shield money from election law and regulation, and LLCs can be used to launder data and be shielded from traceability when you want to follow the money and follow the data.”

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In the case of SCL, “the same company doing voter analytics is doing counterpropaganda work for the State Department.” This shows, said Carroll, that “Americans have absolutely no protection regarding an international military contractor using our voter data for any reason, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

A hurdle for Carroll, Briant, and others who have tried to raise alarm bells is that there are virtually no laws or safeguards against the cross-pollination of defense work and political campaigns. In America, the near-century-old Foreign Agents Registration Act is intended to provide a basic level of transparency around foreign involvement in domestic politics, though it has historically remained underutilized.

With the Lobbying Bill of 2014, Britain codified a similar registry for public relations firms, but it met with widespread criticism for its perceived power bias and lack of enforceability, and it has been greeted with low enrollment. In neither case are defense contractors explicitly mentioned, and in the U.S., federal grantees are merely required to not use publicly obtained funds for political activities. A proposed amendment to the 2018 National Defense bill would have instituted requirements on federal contractors to report all electioneering activities, but the language was not included in the final version.

“Currently the strategic communications industry is largely self-regulated,” the House of Commons committee wrote in its report on disinformation, published last year. “The UK Government should consider new regulations that curb bad behavior in this industry. There needs to be transparency in these strategic communications companies, with a public record of all campaigns that they work on, both at home and abroad.”


Related: The strange afterlife of Cambridge Analytica and the mysterious fate of its data


Defense-grade psychological tactics sharpen the risks of unethical influence campaigns and merit their own regulations, said Sven Hughes, the military reservist who worked for SCL in 2010.

“It’s no different from a kitchen knife,” he said. “If you have a kitchen knife in your kitchen, you can chop up onions. If you take that kitchen knife onto the street or into a bar, then your intent is completely different. The same object is being used in two completely different ways, and there are regulations the moment you take it out of your house and into the real world.”

Hughes now runs his own London-based marketing firms, Verbalisation and Global Influence, focused on commercial and defense clients like Juul, News Corp., and NATO. During the 2015 Nigerian presidential election, Verbalisation ran a Target Audience Analysis campaign concurrent to a multipronged effort that included work by Bell Pottinger and SCL. More recently, Hughes has pledged not to hire any former employees of SCL and called for more transparency within the influence industry.

“The majority of companies are trying to achieve a better industry going forward, a more accountable industry going forward,” he said. “However, there are other aspects of the industry that are just keeping their head down and hoping all the shit blows over so that they don’t get people digging around in what they’ve been doing over the last decade, because some of them have got so many skeletons in the closet.

“If this was really brought to the public’s attention, then I don’t think Cambridge Analytica would be the last company to go down.”

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