US State Dept has deal with under-fire UK data-miner

March 20, 2018 by Dave Clark
Cambridge Analytica's chief executive officer Alexander Nix gives an interview during the Web Summit in Lisbon on November 9, 2017

The US State Department has a $500,000 contract with the British analysis firm facing allegations it misused Facebook user data and offered to dig dirt on its international clients' election opponents.

A State Department official told AFP on Monday the agency's Global Engagement Center has a contract with Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL) Group, the parent company of under-fire Cambridge Analytica.

The agency has no business with CA, but SCL is closely tied to its offshoot and Facebook announced last week that it was suspending both, under the title "SCL/Cambridge Analytica," from its platform.

A public record of the contract on a US government site, spotted by the Defense One news website, lists its value as $496,232 and it was awarded to the "SCL Group Ltd of London" on February 17, 2017.

The State Department official said the contract was to provide "research and analytical support in connection with our mission to counter terrorist propaganda and disinformation overseas.

"SCL, in particular SCL Defence, has done work for other parts of the US government in the past and is a major company in the field of research and analytics," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Global Engagement Center was set up under former US president Barack Obama to analyze and push back against online propaganda and recruitment by armed extremist groups such as the Islamic State.

Since Donald Trump came to office, Congress has assigned $120 million to the center to counter the kind of state propaganda US intelligence says Russia deployed to influence the 2016 presidential election.

But former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was sacked last week, never accepted the funding and the GEC had continued to focus on online jihadist influence rather than state actors like China and Russia.

Analyzing the online profile of suspected jihadists and sympathizers and then "micro-targeting" them for counterpropaganda would be exactly the kind of work that the data-mining firm SCL was set up to do.

But the Cambridge Analytica unit, launched in 2013 to offer advanced assistance to election campaign operations, has been accused of using underhand techniques to influence voters in democratic polls.

Facebook has suspended the firm's account for allegedly covertly creating behavioral profiles of 50 million potential US voters as part of its paid support for Trump's 2016 campaign.

Dirty tricks

Cambridge Analytica denies the claim, but it is also facing a probe from British regulators seeking a court order to seize its servers and investigate allegations of breach of privacy during voter research.

And more pressure was piled on the firm when Britain's Channel 4 news broadcast footage of CA executives boasting to an undercover reporter about alleged election influence techniques.

The pair told the reporter, masquerading as a Sri Lankan businessman keen to influence a vote in his home country, that they had secretly worked in African and European countries as well as in the US.

They described the practice of sub-contracting dirty tricks work to former British and Israeli intelligence agents and using Ukrainian women to lure unsuspecting candidates into compromising situations.

The firm accused Channel 4 of misrepresentation and said the executives had tried to assess the bona fides of a potential client by testing whether he would ask for unethical services they would never provide.

Explore further: Cambridge Analytica: firm at the heart of Facebook scandal

Related Stories

UK lawmaker: Facebook misled Parliament over data leak risk

March 18, 2018

A British lawmaker accused Facebook on Sunday of misleading officials by downplaying the risk of users' data being shared without their consent, after a former employee of data firm Cambridge Analytica says his company harvested ...

Recommended for you

Asteroids, hydrogen make great recipe for life on Mars

March 26, 2019

A new study reveals asteroid impacts on ancient Mars could have produced key ingredients for life if the Martian atmosphere was rich in hydrogen. An early hydrogen-rich atmosphere on Mars could also explain how the planet ...

Cool Earth theory sheds more light on diamonds

March 26, 2019

A QUT geologist has published a new theory on the thermal evolution of Earth billions of years ago that explains why diamonds have formed as precious gemstones rather than just lumps of common graphite.

New cellulose-based material represents three sensors in one

March 26, 2019

Cellulose soaked in a carefully designed polymer mixture acts as a sensor to measure pressure, temperature and humidity at the same time. The measurements are completely independent of each other. The ability to measure pressure, ...

Physicists discover new class of pentaquarks

March 26, 2019

Tomasz Skwarnicki, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, has uncovered new information about a class of particles called pentaquarks. His findings could lead to a new understanding ...

Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation

March 26, 2019

People in many parts of the world feed birds in their backyards, often due to a desire to help wildlife or to connect with nature. In the United States alone, over 57 million households in the feed backyard birds, spending ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.