Israelis hacked into President Muhammadu Buhari’s private e-mail and gave the materials to Cambridge Analytica, a firm hired by former President Goodluck Jonathan to provide “advertisement and marketing services” in support of his 2015 re-election campaign.
According to a report by “The Guardian” and “Observer”, claiming to have spoken to seven individuals with knowledge of Cambridge Analytica and its campaign in Nigeria in early 2015, Senior directors of Cambridge Analytica, including its chief executive Alexander Nix, gave staff instructions to handle material provided by computer hackers in election campaigns in Nigeria and St Kitts and Nevis.
They claim there were two episodes in 2015 that alarmed members of staff and led them to refuse to handle the data, which they assumed would have been obtained illegally.
SCL Elections, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, denied taking possession of or using hacked or stolen personal information from such individuals for any purpose in either campaign.
The revelations are the latest to focus attention on Cambridge Analytica, whose activities are being investigated in the US by the special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his inquiry into possible Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election.
The firm is under pressure to explain how it came to have unauthorised access to millions of Facebook profiles. Politicians in the US and UK have accused it of giving misleading statements about its work, and the information commissioner has demanded access to the company’s databases.
Hired by a Nigerian billionaire to support the re-election of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, Cambridge Analytica was paid an estimated £2m to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against his rival, now President Buhari. Jonathan lost out to Buhari in the presidential race. There is no suggestion Jonathan knew of the covert operation.
Staff working on the campaign said in early 2015, they met Israeli cybersecurity contractors in Cambridge Analytica’s offices in Mayfair, London. Employees said they were told the meeting was arranged by Brittany Kaiser, a senior director at the firm.
The Guardian and Observer have been told the Israelis brought a laptop from their office in Tel Aviv and handed employees a USB stick containing what they believed were hacked personal emails.
Sources said Nix, who was suspended on Tuesday, and other senior directors told staff to search for incriminating material that could be used to damage opposition candidates, including Buhari.
“It made everyone feel really uncomfortable,” said one source. “They wanted people to load it into their email programmes.”
People “freaked out”, another employee said. “They wanted to have nothing to do with it.”
One member of the campaign team told “The Guardian” and Observer” that the material they believed had been hacked included Buhari’s medical records. “I’m 99% sure of that. Or if they didn’t have his medical records they at least had emails that referred to what was going on.”
When news of the London meeting filtered back to Cambridge Analytica staff working on the ground in Nigeria, it caused panic, the source said. Local security advisers told the firm’s team to leave the country immediately because if opposition supporters found out, they could turn on them.
“What is clear is that the security of their employees didn’t even seem to have occurred to them,” said one former employee. “It was a very serious situation and they had to evacuate immediately.”
An expert had flown in from Israel with a laptop, sources say.
And Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s now suspended CEO, and Kaiser, asked employees to take a thumb drive and download the contents on to their own computers.
The content was private emails and the information, they were told, related to Buhari’s financial and medical records.
One employee who was present at the London meeting said he had initially assumed the visiting expert was Mossad or Israeli intelligence passing on what he called “legtimate information”.
But he began to realise this wasn’t the case, he said, when he saw the reaction of his colleagues. One of them had “freaked out”, he said. “He was like, ‘What the fuck? I don’t want anything to do with this.’”
The witnesses are clear – at least in their own minds. The information they were shown had come from hackers.
In a statement, SCL Elections, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, confirmed it had been hired in December 2014 in support of the Jonathan campaign.
“We can confirm that SCL Elections was hired in December 2014 to provide advertising and marketing services in support of the Goodluck Jonathan campaign.”
Asked specifically about the meetings in which staff described being asked to transfer personal information that they believed had been hacked, the firm said: “During an election campaign, it is normal for SCL Elections to meet with vendors seeking to provide services as a subcontractor.
“SCL Elections did not take possession of or use any personal information from such individuals for any purposes. SCL Elections does not use ‘hacked’ or ‘stolen’ data.”