Alexander Nix, the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the data firm at the center of Facebook’s privacy scandal, told a committee in Britain’s House of Commons in London on Wednesday that his team’s work was misunderstood.
Appearing before the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which recalled him for questions as part of its probe of fake news, Nix said the company’s staff was made up of people of different backgrounds who were focused on using data “to make the world a better place.”
Early in his appearance, which drew much social media attention and U.K. media coverage, Nix was questioned about British TV giant Channel 4’s secretly filmed conversation with him and a colleague, in which he said the company could use bribery, honeytraps and extortion to win elections. He said he was “embarrassed” by speaking “with such exaggeration and hyperbole,” arguing that “I didn’t represent the company properly, I didn’t represent what we do” due to “our overzealousness to secure a contract.”
Nix highlighted: “My colleague was absolutely crystal clear in telling the reporter that we’re not in the business of fake news, of lying, of entrapment.” He added: “There are companies that do this, but to me that crosses the line.”
Asked about Cambridge Analytica’s values, Nix said: “There are huge areas of positive work I could point to,” arguing that “the media and this committee are intent on pointing to this one meeting, which is not representative of the ethics of this company.”
Nix later made a similar argument when asked by a committee member if he was simply “a bit unlucky” to have been filmed by Channel 4 the one time he had been unethical. “It wasn’t luck,” he replied. “It was a very deliberate program of deception by Channel 4” and other media. He added: “I know the committee would like to believe the media’s impression that we are this large, nefarious multinational company that influences politics around the world. The truth of the matter is that we are a very small advertising agency that happens to work in a number of sectors, one of which is political campaigns. Most of our time is spent selling toothpaste and automotives and things like that.”
Asked if he wanted to change his previous testimony in front of the committee that Cambridge Analytica didn’t use Facebook data given that another person had testified that it did use data, Nix said: “My former colleagues assured me that my original testimony was accurate” and that “my understanding is that no data was collected.”
Asked about the current status of Cambridge Analytica, Nix said it “is in Chapter 7 in the U.S. … and administration in the U.K.,” adding: “I have no further involvement.”
Asked about a Financial Times report that Nix had taken $8 million out of Cambridge Analytica, he said: “The allegation is false.” He added that he personally paid money into the company to make sure that staff salaries could continue to be paid.
“Mark Turnbull and I were guilty of hyperbole of agreeing on matters that, not only had we never done, but we had no understanding of. We were telling a client what we thought he wanted to hear.”
In late February, Nix had already given evidence in front of the committee. “However, following evidence submitted to the committee, and material published in the U.K. Observer, Guardian, The New York Times and Channel 4 about Cambridge Analytica’s business practices and alleged misuse of data, further questions have been raised,” the committee said ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.
The committee first recalled Nix to appear April 18 “to clarify his original evidence,” to which he agreed, but subsequently declined to attend. “As a result, the committee issued a formal summons to Mr. Nix to appear on Wednesday,” which he accepted, it said.
Cambridge Analytica used information from Facebook and others to build psychological profiles of U.S. voters, using, among other things, an app that appeared to be a personality test. The app collected data on tens of millions of people and their Facebook friends, even those who did not download the app themselves.
In May, the company said it was declaring bankruptcy and shutting down, arguing it had been “vilified” for actions that are both legal and widely accepted as part of online advertising.
Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in late May told members of the European Parliament in Brussels about the Cambridge Analytica scandal that the social media giant was “used for harm,” apologizing for it.
Addressing the harvesting of Facebook data, Nix claimed that while Alex Kogan, who had developed the app Cambridge Analytica used to collect data, had received information on 87 million people in the US, Cambridge Analytica itself had “only received data on about 20 million people.”