Two data scientists who were instrumental in the founding of political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica have scrubbed any mention of the controversial company from their social media profiles — but they are quietly building a new, and similar behavioral analysis firm, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Tadas Jucikas and Brent Clickard, former close colleagues of Chris Wylie, the man who blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica, founded Genus AI in May 2016 as an artificial intelligence company that “integrates 3rd party as well as 1st party data sources and applies proprietary insights and algorithms to unlock the value hidden in data,” according to its website. Some of those techniques were ostensibly shaped by their time at Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, where they, along with Wylie, pioneered practices that would form the basis of the data mining outfit, which is currently under fire.
Cambridge Analytica is at the center of a media and political maelstrom, having been accused by Wylie of misappropriating the data of more than 50 million Facebook users. Government officials on both sides of the Atlantic are now trying to determine to what extent that data played a role in advising the company’s clients, particularly Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Leave.EU (Brexit) campaign, on their paths to electoral victories in 2016. Facebook, meanwhile, is in crisis as questions swirl about what it knew of Cambridge Analytica’s actions. And the birth of the new firm suggests that the hubbub around the political consulting firm is the mere tip of an enormous iceberg that touches the core of the social network’s business.
Wylie, who revealed his role in the creation of “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool” to the Observer and the New York Times last week, worked closely with Jucikas and Clickard at SCL’s elections division; the three had planned to leave the firm to start their own company in 2014, according to documents viewed by BuzzFeed News. They were unable to do so, hampered by agreements with SCL, said a source familiar with the situation, and their idea for a company eventually became Cambridge Analytica, a joint venture between SCL and Robert Mercer, an American hedge fund magnate and Trump patron.
“Cambridge Analytica was founded on misappropriated data of at least 50 million Facebook users and I want to bring attention to that so that people understand that their data is being used improperly by this company,” Wylie said in an interview on NBC’s Today show on Monday. “...And it’s really important, I think, to find out: Was this data used to elect Donald Trump?”
SCL’s elections division, using social media data, third-party information from data brokers, and machine learning algorithms, was trying to build “psychographic profiles” — a comprehensive view of how an individual is likely to feel about a given issue, as well as the way they’re inclined to vote — of entire countries to model events on entire populations and predict markets, a source familiar told BuzzFeed News. Workers for SCL sometimes bragged about influencing events in nations like Trinidad and Tobago as well as Ghana, that person said.
SCL was able to do that, in part, because of data collected by Cambridge University data scientist Aleksandr Kogan. Through his company Global Science Research, Kogan built and used a personality quiz Facebook application to collect data, including Facebook page likes, location, and basic personal information, from millions of Americans throughout 2014. The application also collected the data of users' Facebook friends, reportedly expanding the network of 270,000 app users who gave express permission to roughly 50 million unwitting individuals. That data was later improperly handed off to Cambridge Analytica.
Jucikas and Clickard, who make no mention of their time at SCL or their role in founding Cambridge Analytica on their LinkedIn profiles, did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment. A since-deleted profile for "Tadas Jucikas" on F6S, a social platform for startup founders, reads "I helped create Cambridge Analytica which played a role in Donald Trump [sic] presidential election.”
Both Jucikas’s and Genus AI’s Twitter accounts have been dormant in the last week. The company removed a link on its website that navigated to a team page with bios for Genus’s executives after BuzzFeed News sent emails to its founders on Monday.
Wylie also did not return multiple requests for comment.
While Wylie has gone public, his former colleagues have remained quiet and are still attempting to capitalize on the skills they honed while at SCL. In addition to Genus, Jucikas, who shared an apartment for a time with Wylie, created another research company and is an adviser for an energy startup that employs artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Clickard, apart from cofounding Genus, serves as a data science consultant at a workplace analytics firm and has done work for a survey research firm with Kogan and another data scientist who originally harvested and provided Cambridge Analytica with its contentious Facebook data trove.
In an email sent to BuzzFeed News after publication of this article, Jucikas said "Genus does not have – nor has ever had – access to the Facebook data set," adding that "as business we do not use Facebook customer data to drive insight." Clickard did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
When BuzzFeed News paid a visit to Genus AI's West London headquarters, company officials, communicating through a receptionist, refused to talk and referred all inquiries to email. At a San Francisco address listed on the company’s website, a security guard said that the suite Genus claimed to have occupied had been vacated by its tenants in the last month. BuzzFeed News also visited a Washington, DC, address for the company, though there was also no one in that office. A building manager attempted to alert the company that BuzzFeed News was looking for them.
A spokesperson for Facebook, which said on Monday that it is hiring a third-party firm to audit Cambridge Analytica, did not return a request for comment. Cambridge Analytica, whose CEO Alexander Nix said in a February parliamentary hearing that his firm did not work with Facebook data, released a statement on Saturday contradicting that, but claimed the company had deleted the GSR-obtained social network information after it had learned that the information violated Facebook’s term of service.
On Monday, UK authorities sought warrants to raid Cambridge Analytica’s offices and seize its servers and documents.
While Wylie left the company in late 2014, it’s less clear if Clickard or Jucikas, both of whom have doctorate degrees from Cambridge University, still maintain any working relationship with the eponymous data mining firm. In late 2013, while working for SCL, the trio had begun to think about how to start their own venture separate from their employer. Jucikas and Wylie, who were roommates at the time, as well as Clickard, eventually developed a pitch for a company they called Arg.us, according to documents seen by BuzzFeed News. After exploring the possibility of raising $15 million from venture capital investors, the group eventually realized that it wouldn’t be impossible to take the property and research they had developed at SCL with them to their new venture.
Arg.us served as a precursor for Cambridge Analytica, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Without Wylie, Jucikas and Clickard founded Genus AI in May 2016 and announced in a blog post that it had raised $1 million in seed funding in October 2017 from a Berlin-based venture fund and a collection of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
“We are a team of data scientists, engineers and marketing experts passionate about harnessing the power of AI for consumer outreach and communications,” reads the company’s website. “Backed by a group of top investors we've set out to change the way we understand and interact with people around the world.”
Genus’s site says little about its clients, though a company blog post says the startup has already built an “anti-fraud framework” for a car-hiring company and used population data insights to “inform policy changes at government departments.” The company also hired Jesse Kamzol, the chief data officer at the Republican National Committee from February 2015 to August 2017, as its head of data.
Despite this, Genus seems to have kept a low profile in Washington. Two prominent GOP figures told BuzzFeed News they had not heard of the company, while its executives have been careful not to mention any role in election work on social media. Among the company’s leader, only Clickard has any public statement of his time in politics. In a short February 2016 YouTube video published by the management consultancy company the Chemistry Group, where Clickard was employed until July 2016, the former SCL employee discusses his involvement working in politics. “The coolest thing I’ve worked on in the past is probably using personality data to personalize communication across several US Senate campaigns,” he said.
Some members of Genus AI's small team are connected to not only Wylie, but also to Kogan and his cofounder at Global Science Research, Alex Slinger. Clickard worked for Kogan's current venture, Philometrics, a survey research company that claims to use "online behavioural big data analysis." It's unclear if Clickard still works for Philometrics in any capacity. While he has two blog posts on an archived version of its website, and is listed in other documents, his most recent company blog post for Philometrics is from November 2015. Philometrics does not appear in Clickard's past work history under his LinkedIn profile.
Many of Genus AI's employees are also currently involved in other data and psychology ventures, in some cases starting overlapping companies with other Genus AI staffers. Jucikas and Genus AI's technology adviser, Tobias Kloepper, cofounded a data company called Whitehat Analytics. According to online domain registration records, Whitehat Analytics registered a website for Our Values, an organization dedicated to engaging veterans in politics that was started by two Trump campaign supporters in October 2017. Kloepper himself is also currently serving as an executive of a third company, Aigenpulse, an analytics platform for scientific data, where he is CEO.
In addition, Jucikas is also listed as an adviser to WePower, a “blockchain-based green energy trading platform.” A white paper for its cryptocurrency notes that his “vast experience includes advising the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education with the UK Government on data science, machine learning, and AI.”
There is no mention of SCL or Cambridge Analytica. ●
Mark Di Stefano in London and Sarah Mimms in Washington, DC, contributed additional reporting to this story.
The story has been updated to better reflect Brent Clickard's past relationship with the Chemistry Group.
This story has been updated with comment from Tadas Jucikas.