Ahead of the 2015 elections, a Nigerian billionaire and supporter of former President Goodluck Jonathan paid £2million to Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that worked on the election of US President Donald Trump, to hack into the medical records of General Muhammadu Buhari, then candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
According to reports in UK sister publications, The Guardian and Observer, senior directors of Cambridge Analytica, including its Chief Executive, Mr. Alexander Nix, directed the firm's staff to handle material provided by computer hackers in election campaigns in Nigeria and St Kitts and Nevis.
SCL Elections, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, denied using hacked or stolen personal information from such individuals for any purpose in either election.
The sister publications said they were not suggesting that former President Jonathan knew that his billionaire supporter paid Cambridge Analytica £2million to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against his rival, the opposition leader General Buhari, who eventually won the election.
The papers quoted Cambridge Analytica staff working on the campaign in early 2015 as saying they met Israeli cybersecurity contractors in the firm’s offices in Mayfair, London. The staff said they were told the meeting was arranged by Brittany Kaiser, a senior director at the firm.
The papers further reported that the Israeli cybersecurity contractors arrived with a laptop from their office in Tel Aviv and gave Cambridge Analytica staff a USB stick containing what they believed were hacked personal emails.
They equally reported that Mr. 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 President Buhari.
“It made everyone feel really uncomfortable. They wanted people to load it into their email programmes,” a staff of the company was quoted as saying.
Another was reported to have said the employees “freaked out”, as "they wanted to have nothing to do with it.”
The papers said a member of the campaign team revealed to them 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,” a member of the campaign team was quoted as saying.
On learning about the London meeting, Cambridge Analytica staff working in Nigeria were gripped by panic. Their local security advisers told the firm’s team to leave the country immediately or risk being attacked if opposition supporters found out their mission.
“What is clear is that the security of their employees didn’t even seem to have occurred to them. It was a very serious situation and they had to evacuate immediately," a former staff was reported as saying
But an SCL Elections spokesperson said the team working on the campaign in Nigeria remained in the country throughout the original campaigning period and left in accordance with the company’s campaign plan. He added that the firm was not retained for the entirety of the campaign period when elections were rescheduled.
The same Israeli team that had worked on the Nigeria campaign, in January 2015, obtained private information of the St Kitts and Nevis politician Timothy Harris who, at the time, was an opposition leader. He is now prime minister.
SCL Elections, in a statement, said: “During an election campaign, it is normal for SCL Elections to meet with vendors seeking to provide services as a sub-contractor. 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.”
The revelations are bound to pile more pressure on Cambridge Analytica which is under scrutiny over the techniques it uses to influence elections for its clients.
In the UK, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office are investigating the firm for breaches of electoral and data protection law.
In the US, Cambridge Analytica's activities are being investigated in th 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 gained unauthorized 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 its databases.