Ever since a global scandal exploded over the disgraced British tech firm Cambridge Analytica and the manipulation of data from millions of Facebook users, there has been one question hanging in the air in Argentina. It’s one that has become even more pertinent after the arrival of the Netflix documentary The Great Hack. The question is simple: Did Cambridge Analytica work in Argentina? Or, in other words, did Cambiemos hire the firm to use their services in Mauricio Macri’s presidential campaign in 2015?
The sale of data, for varied – and evidently sinister – uses exposes the biggest asset of Mark Zuckerberg’s empire. As for the firm, there are some very particular connections with Argentina – ranging from an address in Recoleta corresponding to the company’s parent firm Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), to Cambridge Analytica former CEO Alexander Nix’s co-sponsorship of the Fundación PRO Alvear, a La Pampa NGO, among others.
Last week, the Investigative Team of Perfil Educación contacted Julian Wheatland, the last CEO of the British firm, who confirmed that the consultancy firm worked in this country.
In an exclusive interview, Wheatland assured Perfil that Nix “could have worked for local elections in Argentina,” even ahead of the 2015 general election.
“SCL Elections, which preceded Cambridge Analytica, is the company advising campaigns, which surveyed voters and developed a strategy for candidates in Argentina, but there was no major analysis of services,” said Wheatland, a specialist in data analysis who was entrusted with closing down Cambridge Analytica last year. He is a protagonist of the Netflix documentary.
“With whom and how did Cambridge Analytica negotiate in Argentina?” Wheatland was asked.
“Sorry, you’d have to ask Nix,” he answered.
Alexander Nix was contacted for this story but declined to give a reply.
Wheatland’s predecessor at Cambridge Analytica, Nix last year admitted under oath to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee of Britain’s House of Commons that the firm had worked in Argentina on an “anti-Kirchner” campaign, although he refused to specify who hired them. His comments implied that campaign was sketched out, but that it wasn’t executed. He did not name who the client in Argentina was, but he did confirm that it was not Paul Singer, the chief of the Elliott Management Company hedge fund.
Via SCL, the now-extinct Cambridge Analytica registered a business address in Buenos Aires on its website: Arenales 941, 5° A. The home of agro-businessman Lucas Talamoni Grether, a former polo player, it is also the office of Grether’s farming company Black Soil, a firm in which Nix is his partner. It is no coincidence that the two firms co-exist on the same premises, Nix and Talamoni Grether are great friends, apart from a shared passion for polo.
Perfil tried to get in contact with Talamoni but had obtained no reply by press time.
“A Recoleta address came up and it was investigated. But there were no conclusive results after examining the accounts. If everything was done under the table? We cannot prove it” said auditors from the National Electoral Court (CNE), who in 2018 announced they would probe Cambridge Analytica’s alleged activities in Argentina.
As for the Cambiemos side, big data analyst Guillermo Vagni formed part of the team commanded by now Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña in a bunker in Balcarce street during the 2015 elections. Consulted by Perfil as to whether there was a possible agreement with Cambridge Analytica, Vagni explained: “Their services were not used although they were indeed offered. But it’s not so easy to use them. They said they could do it, not with Facebook but their own data. By then, we knew they had acted that way in [Donald] Trump’s [2016 presidential] campaign.”
Vagni was referring to Cambridge Analytica’s controversial role in the 2016 United States presidential election and the 2017 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, events which turned the heat on the company and shone a light on its use and manipulation of personal data.
“In retrospect the scale of the scandal seems inevitable, given that the public discovered that their data were being used by the advertising industry,” said Wheatland.
During a pause in his classes at the prestigious New York university The New School, Professor David Carroll, is calling for “more press and government investigation” into Cambridge Analytica’s actions.
Carroll, who also featured in The Great Hack and is still struggling to recover his personal data from what used to be Cambridge Analytica via the courts, admits though, that the firm have covered their tracks.
He believes the chances of finding out if Cambiemos did use the services of the British company are over – it is already too late.
“If an Argentine citizen had done what I did before 2018 and requested SCL data in the United Kingdom, then they might have proved what I discovered. Now it’s too late because the company has closed down and there’s nobody to respond to these requests,” he explained.
Perfil also contacted the co-director and producer of the Netflix documentary, US-Egyptian citizen Karim Amer, to see if he had information about Cambridge Analytica’s activities here. Amer suggested that the local plot might have further twists to come. “We’d be interested in doing a documentary on Argentina,” he said.
Cambridge Analytica and Argentina
A 2018 undercover investigation into Cambridge Analytica, a British firm hired by Donald Trump’s successful 2016 US presidential campaign, by Britain’s Channel 4 News exposed the firm’s executives boasting they could entrap politicians in compromising situations with bribes and Ukrainian sex workers, and spread misinformation online.
According to recordings of a meeting, the executives claimed to have worked in more 200 elections across the world, including Argentina, the Czech Republic, India, Kenya and Nigeria.
The British firm said afterwards that it “strongly denied” the claims from Channel 4, as well as reports on misuse of Facebook data.
In March 2018, Argentina’s National Electoral Chamber (CNE) said it would carry out an investigation into the alleged activities of the disgraced British campaign firm Cambridge Analytica in local elections. The government has repeatedly denied it had any involvement with Cambridge Analytica.