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Cambridge Analytica, the Trump's campaign's data firm, faces new controversy

Cambridge Analytica, the Trump's campaign's data firm, has Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team's attention. They're not alone.
A laptop in use. (Photo by TEK/Science Photo Library/Corbis)
A laptop in use.

When it comes to the controversies surrounding Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, questions surrounding Cambridge Analytica may seem peripheral -- they're not as high profile as, say, the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians -- but they're actually quite important.

We first started talking in earnest about Cambridge Analytica, a firm Steve Bannon helped create and the digital arm of Trump's 2016 political operation, last fall, when the Wall Street Journal  reported that Trump donor Rebekah Mercer asked Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix "whether the company could better organize the Hillary Clinton-related emails being released by WikiLeaks," which allegedly received stolen documents from Russian operatives.

Over the weekend, questions surrounding the data firm became quite a bit more serious with this  New York Times report.

As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 American midterm elections, it had a problem.The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network's history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump's campaign in 2016.

Wait, it gets a little worse.

In a separate report, the Times added that while Cambridge Analytica's Alexander Nix has denied any work with Russian companies, the firm partnered with a Russian oil giant -- which, for some reason, was "interested in how data was used to target American voters."

The article went on to note, "Cambridge Analytica also included extensive questions about Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, in surveys it was carrying out in American focus groups in 2014. It is not clear what -- or which client -- prompted the line of questioning, which asked for views on topics ranging from Mr. Putin's popularity to Russian expansionism."

Not surprisingly, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team has asked the firm to turn over "the emails of any Cambridge Analytica employees who worked on the Trump campaign."

Mueller's investigators aren't the only ones with questions. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) suggested yesterday that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg may need to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to explain what the company knew about the misuse of its data "to target political advertising and manipulate voters." Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) announced plans for a state-based investigation.

British officials, meanwhile, are also demanding an explanation following reports that Facebook accounts were exploited in advance of the UK's "Brexit" vote.

For its part, Facebook continues to insist it did nothing wrong, there was no actual "breach," and Cambridge Analytica's account has been suspended.

Finally, while the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into the Russia scandal seemed to end abruptly last week, the Wall Street Journal  reported that Cambridge Analytica's Nix conducted an interview with the panel via videoconference last week.

Asked about this yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rep Michael Conaway's (R=Texas) answers were less than clear.