They’re Back: Ex-Cambridge Analytica employees launch Auspex International to focus on social and political campaigns in the Middle East and Africa

Ahmad Al-Khatib a former Director of Emerdata launched the company and appointed ex-Cambridge Analytica’s International Political division head Mark Turnbull as Managing Director

Photo courtesy Michael Coghlan via flickr creative commons license

On Wednesday Aliya Ram reported in the Financial Times that a new company called Auspex International has launched in London with several former employees of Cambridge Analytica and will use data analysis techniques to focus on social and political campaigns in the developing world.

The press release on Auspex International’s website describes Ahmad Al-Khatib, who is launching the company, as “a 29 year-old Egyptian and former Director of Cambridge Analytica parent company, Emerdata.” As I reported in March, Ahmad Al-Khatib had been appointed Director of Emerdata on 28 January 2018, the same day as two others — Cheng Peng and Johnson Chun Shun Ko, who is Erik Prince’s business partner at Frontier Services Group.

Al-Khatib ended his appointment as director of Emerdata after three months in May 2018, and the Auspex International press release stated:

“The collapse of CA just months later was a bitter disappointment. However, it presented an opportunity to build an ethically based, data-driven communications company that he could be certain would share his purpose and values.”

According to the Financial Times Auspex International has already secured new business and has won a contract for political work in an unnamed African state. Prior to working at Cambridge Analytica, Auspex’s new Managing Director Mark Turnbull had focused on Africa, the Middle East and South Asia during eight years at Bell Pottinger — a firm, like Cambridge Analytica, which was embroiled in scandal before shutting down.

Mark Turnbull was also caught earlier this year in an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News, along with Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. In the video, Turnbull described to prospective clients how Cambridge Analytica could obtain damaging material on opponents and then discreetly push it onto social media and the internet. He said:

“we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”

Al-Khatib appointed Mark Turnbull the new Managing Director of Auspex International and according to the press release:

“It was Turnbull’s integrity, along with his strong track record in strategic consultancy and campaigning, that persuaded Al-Khatib to appoint him.”

In the Financial Times article Al-Khatib is described as the “sole investor” of Auspex International. However, a review of Companies House filings shows a UK-based company Auspex International Ltd (company # 11402411) that was incorporated on 7 June 2018.

There are two directors listed — Omar Al Khatib and Alastair Harris. In addition, the ‘Person with significant interest’ lists Alastair Harris with ownership of shares of 75% or more.

Alastair Harris has a LinkedIn page where he lists his experience as the Campaign Director of Cambridge Analytica from March to May 2018. However Harris is not mentioned on the Auspex International website, in their press release, or in the Financial Times article.

The other director of Auspex International listed in Companies House filings, Omar Al Khatib, is listed as a Citizen of Seychelles, which is how Ahmad Al-Khatib was listed on the Emerdata filing.

Aliya Ram who reported the story in the Financial Times responded to this Companies House information which I had shared on Twitter and clarified that the information was not publish due to word count limits and that Omar Al Khatib (who is Ahmad’s brother) and Alastair Harris set up the company but will be replaced by Mark Turnbull and Ahmad Al-Khatib.

However, this changing of roles in company filings for Auspex International seems slightly reminiscent of Cambridge Analytica, which along with its parent company SCL Group, had a complex corporate structure that made it difficult to understand or follow ownership and business relationships.

The beginning of the end of Cambridge Analytica started with reporting by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer back in 2015 and 2016, and blew up in March of this year with the revelation that Cambridge Analytica used data harvested from Facebook about more than 50 million users. This week the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced it was fining Facebook £500,000 for lack of transparency and failing to protect users’ information, and it has started a criminal prosecution of SCL Elections.

Al Khatib told the Financial Times that the new company would use data “from data brokers, public sources and its clients, and investigate ways to procure internet histories or data from companies such as Google.” Instead of focusing on data from Facebook, which Al Khatib described as less valuable, the focus would be on Google where the user history provides “real hints and triggers.”

Time will tell how successful Auspex International will be as it continues similar business practices, with similar players. Many of us will be watching.