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Cambridge Analytica: links to Moscow oil firm and St Petersburg university

Data company gave briefing to Moscow firm Lukoil, and the lecturer who developed the crucial algorithm worked for St Petersburg university

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Cambridge Analytica: links to Moscow oil firm and St Petersburg university
” was written by Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, for The Observer on Saturday 17th March 2018 21.59 UTC

Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University academic who orchestrated the harvesting of Facebook data, had previously unreported ties to a Russian university, including a teaching position and grants for research into the social media network, the Observer has discovered. Cambridge Analytica, the data firm he worked with – which funded the project to turn tens of millions of Facebook profiles into a unique political weapon – also attracted interest from a key Russian firm with links to the Kremlin.

Energy firm Lukoil, which is now on the US sanctions list and has been used as a vehicle of government influence, saw a presentation on the firm’s work in 2014. It began with a focus on voter suppression in Nigeria, and Cambridge Analytica also discussed “micro-targeting” individuals on social media during elections.

The revelations come at a time of intense US scrutiny of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, with 13 Russians criminally charged last month with interfering to help Donald Trump.

In Britain, concerns about Russian propaganda have been mounting, with the prime minister, Theresa May, recently attacking Russia for spreading fake news, accusing Moscow of attempts to “weaponise information” and influence polls.

Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil company, discussed with Cambridge Analytica the data company’s powerful social media marketing system, which was already being deployed for Republican Ted Cruz in the US presidential primaries and was later used to back Brexit and Trump.

Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, emailed colleagues after initial contacts to say that Lukoil wanted a clearer explanation of “how our services are going to apply to the petroleum business”.

“They understand behavioural micro-targeting in the context of elections (as per your excellent document/white paper) but they are failing to make the connection between voters and their consumers,” he wrote in an email seen by the Observer.

A slide presentation prepared for the Lukoil pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

Discussion of services offered by Cambridge Analytica was apparently going right to the top of Lukoil, even though its retail operations in America are a very minor corner of the oil and gas giant’s empire. Asking for a detailed presentation of Cambridge Analyticas’s work in July 2014, Nix told his colleague the document would be “shared with the CEO of the business”.

The chief executive of Lukoil, Vagit Alekperov, is a former Soviet oil minister who has said the strategic aims of Lukoil are closely aligned with those of Russia. “I have only one task connected with politics, to help the country and the company. I’m not close to Mr Putin, but I treat him with great respect,” he told the New York Times.

Cambridge Analytica said an affiliate company had talked to Lukoil Turkey about a loyalty card scheme and proposed a pilot study with a small number of petrol stations there, but the project had not gone ahead. “[The talks] were about potential commercial work in Turkey and did not involve any discussion of political work,” a spokesman said. “Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate companies have not worked in Russia and have not worked for a Russian company or organisation.”

Last month Nix told MPs: “We have never worked with a Russian organisation in Russia or any other company. We do no have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals.”

That appears to contradict the company documents seen by the Observer, that list Russia as one of the countries where Cambridge Analytica and affiliate companies have clients.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who has come forward to talk to the Observer, said it was never entirely clear what the Russian firm hoped to get from the operation.

“Alexander Nix’s presentation didn’t make any sense to me,” said Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica soon after the initial meetings. “If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?”

Lukoil did not respond to requests for comments.

Kogan, a lecturer who worked with Cambridge Analytica on building up the database of US voters then at the heart of the company’s plans, said he had not had any connection to the Lukoil pitch.

But while he was helping turn Facebook profiles into a political tool he was also an associate professor at St Petersburg State University, taking Russian government grants to fund other research into social media. “Stress, health, and psychological wellbeing in social networks: cross-cultural investigation” was the title of one piece of research. Online posts showed Kogan lecturing in Russian. One talk was called: “New methods of communication as an effective political instrument”.

Cambridge University said academics are allowed to take on outside work but are expected to inform their head of institution, a rule Kogan had complied with. “We understand that Dr Kogan informed his head of department of discussions with St Petersburg University regarding a collaboration; it was understood that this work and any associated grants would be in a private capacity,” a spokesman said.

Apart from that, Kogan appears to have largely kept the work private. Colleagues said they had not heard about the post in St Petersburg. “I am very surprised by that. No one knew,” one academic who asked not to be named told the Observer. Russia is not mentioned in a 10-page CV Kogan posted on a university website in 2015. The CV lists undergraduate prizes and grants of a few thousand dollars and links to dozens of media interviews.

One Cambridge Analytica employee mentioned Kogan’s Russian work in an email to Nix in March 2014 discussing a pitch to a Caribbean nation for a security contract, including “criminal psychographic profiling via intercepts”.

“We may want to either loop in or find out a bit more about the interesting work Alex Kogan has been doing for the Russians and see how/if it applies,” the colleague wrote.

Kogan told the Observer: “Nothing I did on the Russian project was at all related to Cambridge Analytica in any way. No data or models.” His recollection was that the Russia project had started a year after his collaboration with Cambridge Analytica ended.

He said the St Petersburg position emerged by chance on a social visit. A native Russian speaker, Kogan was born in Moldova and brought up in Moscow until he was seven, when his family emigrated to the US, where he later obtained citizenship.

However, he stayed in touch with family friends in Russia and visited regularly. On one trip, he said, he “dropped an email” to the psychology department at St Petersburg.

“We met, had a nice chat, and decided let’s try to collaborate – give me more reason to visit there,” he told the Observer in an email.

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US Supreme Court Upholds Abortion Clinic Protest Zone Limits In Chicago, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday left in place policies in Chicago and Pennsylvania’s capital Harrisburg that place limits on anti-abortion activists gathered outside abortion clinics.

The justices declined to hear two appeals by anti-abortion groups and individual activists of lower court rulings upholding the cities’ ordinances.

The Chicago policy bars activists from coming within eight feet (2.4 meters) of someone within 50 feet (15 meters) of any healthcare facility without their consent if they intend to protest, offer counseling or hand out leaflets. The Harrisburg measure bars people from congregating or demonstrating within 20 feet (6 meters) of a healthcare facility’s entrance or exit.

Both cases pitted the free speech rights of anti-abortion protesters against public safety concerns raised by women’s healthcare providers regarding demonstrations outside clinics. There is a history of violent acts committed against abortion providers.

At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the ordinances violate free speech rights protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld the Chicago ordinance, which was introduced in 2009. The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Harrisburg in 2019. That measure was enacted in response to disruptions by protesters outside two abortion clinics in the city.

The cases did not directly implicate abortion rights. In a major ruling on Monday, the struck down a Louisiana law placing restrictions on doctors that perform abortions.

Also on Thursday, the court directed a lower court to reconsider the legality of two Indiana abortion restrictions – one that would require women to undergo an ultrasound procedure at least 18 hours before terminating a pregnancy and another that would expand parental notification when a minor seeks an abortion. The lower court had struck down both measures.

Abortion remains a divisive issue in the United States. The Supreme Court in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalized abortion nationwide, finding that women have a constitutional right to the procedure. In recent years, numerous Republican-governed states have sought to impose a series of restrictions on abortion.

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Federal Judge Reverses Trump Asylum Policy Due To Government Failing To Abide By Administrative Procedure Act

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(Law & Crime) — A federal judge appointed by President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening overturned the Trump Administration’s second and most restrictive asylum policy, all because the government failed to abide by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the judge reasoned.

In a 52-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly of Washington, D.C. held that in enacting the rule, which required immigrants to seek asylum in any country they passed through before they could claim asylum in the U.S., the Trump administration “unlawfully dispensed” with mandatory procedural requirements allowing the public to weigh in on proposed rule changes.

Kelly, who was appointed to the court in 2017, rejected the Trump administration’s assertion that the asylum rule fell within exceptions to the APA permitting the government to disregard the notice-and-comment requirement if there’s “good cause” such commentary is unnecessary or if the rule involves a military or foreign affairs function.

“[The court] also holds that Defendants unlawfully promulgated the rule without complying with the APA’s notice-and-comment requirements, because neither the ‘good cause’ nor the ‘foreign affairs function’ exceptions are satisfied on the record here,” Kelly wrote. “Despite their potentially broad sweep, the D.C. Circuit has instructed that these exceptions must be ‘narrowly construed’ and ‘reluctantly countenanced.’ The Circuit has also emphasized that the broader a rule’s reach, ‘the greater the necessity for public comment.’ With these baseline principles in mind, the Court considers whether either the good cause or foreign affairs function exception applies here. Neither does.”

According to Kelly, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) generally allows any person physically in the U.S. seeking refuge to apply for asylum — with some exceptions for immigrants who have committed certain crimes or who had previously been “firmly resettled” prior to arriving in the U.S.

“The Court reiterates that there are many circumstances in which courts appropriately defer to the national security judgments of the Executive. But determining the scope of an APA exception is not one of them,” Kelly wrote. “As noted above, if engaging in notice-and-comment rulemaking before implementing the rule would have harmed ongoing international negotiations, Defendants could have argued that these effects gave them good cause to forgo these procedures. And they could have provided an adequate factual record to support those predictive judgments to which the Court could defer. But they did not do so.”

Claudia Cubas, the Litigation Director at CAIR Coalition, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, praised the decision as removing an “unjust barrier to protection” for those in need.

“By striking down this rule, Judge Kelly reaffirmed two fundamental principles. The protection of asylum seekers fleeing for safety is intertwined with our national values and that the United States is a country where the rule of law cannot be tossed aside for political whims,” Cubas said.

Read the full opinion below:

Asylum Ban Decision by Law&Crime on Scribd

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US Supreme Court Rules Public Funds Allowed For Religious Schools In State Tax Credit Program

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USA Today writes:

The Supreme Court delivered a major victory Tuesday to parents seeking state aid for their children’s religious school education. The court’s conservative majority ruled that states offering scholarships to students in private schools cannot exclude religious schools from such programs.

The decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who has joined the liberal justices in three other major rulings this month. It was a decision long sought by proponents of school choice and vehemently opposed by teachers’ unions, who fear it could drain needed tax dollars from struggling public schools.

Read the US Supreme Court ruling here or below.

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