Sunday, May 07, 2017

We Need to Have This Figured Out by 2019. That Is a Huge Challenge. On It Rests Our Democracy.

If we don't get it figured out, you can pretty much kiss goodbye any hope of exercising your "democratic franchise" when you go to the polls to elect our next federal government. Today, money is all that's needed to buy elections, even in Canada.

It bought the Brexit vote. It can do the same thing here.

The money man is American Robert Mercer and he's out to overwhelm democracy with money to create a new conservative order.

In June 2013, a young American postgraduate called Sophie was passing through London when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d previously interned. The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. But all of this was still to come. London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”


On that day in June 2013, Sophie met up with SCL’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You really need to get into data.’ She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she suggested he meet this firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father.”

Who’s her father?

“Eric Schmidt.”

Eric Schmidt – the chairman of Google?

“Yes. And she suggested Alexander should meet this company called Palantir.”


I had been speaking to former employees of Cambridge Analytica for months and heard dozens of hair-raising stories, but it was still a gobsmacking moment. To anyone concerned about surveillance, Palantir is practically now a trigger word. The data-mining firm has contracts with governments all over the world – including GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of eBay and PayPal, who became Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump.


A weird but telling detail. Because it goes to the heart of why the story of Cambridge Analytica is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. Sophie Schmidt now works for another Silicon Valley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.

It also reveals a critical and gaping hole in the political debate in Britain. Because what is happening in America and what is happening in Britain are entwined. Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are entwined. And Cambridge Analytica is one point of focus through which we can see all these relationships in play; it also reveals the elephant in the room as we hurtle into a general election: Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade - in a radical and alarming way - by Trump.

There are three strands to this story. How the foundations of an authoritarian surveillance state are being laid in the US. How British democracy was subverted through a covert, far-reaching plan of coordination enabled by a US billionaire. And how we are in the midst of a massive land grab for power by billionaires via our data. Data which is being silently amassed, harvested and stored. Whoever owns this data owns the future.

My entry point into this story began, as so many things do, with a late-night Google. Last December, I took an unsettling tumble into a wormhole of Google autocomplete suggestions that ended with “did the holocaust happen”. And an entire page of results that claimed it didn’t.

Google’s algorithm had been gamed by extremist sites and it was Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, who helped me get to grips with what I was seeing. He was the first person to map and uncover an entire “alt-right” news and information ecosystem and he was the one who first introduced me to Cambridge Analytica.

He called the company a central point in the right’s “propaganda machine”, a line I quoted in reference to its work for the Trump election campaign and the referendum Leave campaign. That led to the second article featuring Cambridge Analytica – as a central node in the alternative news and information network that I believed Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon, the key Trump aide who is now his chief strategist, were creating. I found evidence suggesting they were on a strategic mission to smash the mainstream media and replace it with one comprising alternative facts, fake history and rightwing propaganda.


Mercer’s role in the referendum went far beyond this. Far beyond the jurisdiction of any UK law. The key to understanding how a motivated and determined billionaire could bypass ourelectoral laws rests on AggregateIQ, an obscure web analytics company based in an office above a shop in Victoria, British Columbia.

It was with AggregateIQ that Vote Leave (the official Leave campaign) chose to spend £3.9m, more than half its official £7m campaign budget. As did three other affiliated Leave campaigns: BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the Democratic Unionist party, spending a further £757,750. “Coordination” between campaigns is prohibited under UK electoral law, unless campaign expenditure is declared, jointly. It wasn’t. Vote Leave says the Electoral Commission “looked into this” and gave it “a clean bill of health”.

How did an obscure Canadian company come to play such a pivotal role in Brexit? It’s a question that Martin Moore, director of the centre for the study of communication, media and power at King’s College London has been asking too. “I went through all the Leave campaign invoices when the Electoral Commission uploaded them to its site in February. And I kept on discovering all these huge amounts going to a company that not only had I never heard of, but that there was practically nothing at all about on the internet. More money was spent with AggregateIQ than with any other company in any other campaign in the entire referendum. All I found, at that time, was a one-page website and that was it. It was an absolute mystery.”

Moore contributed to an LSE report published in April that concluded UK’s electoral laws were “weak and helpless” in the face of new forms of digital campaigning. Offshore companies, money poured into databases, unfettered third parties… the caps on spending had come off. The laws that had always underpinned Britain’s electoral laws were no longer fit for purpose. Laws, the report said, that needed “urgently reviewing by parliament”.

AggregateIQ holds the key to unravelling another complicated network of influence that Mercer has created. A source emailed me to say he had found that AggregateIQ’s address and telephone number corresponded to a company listed on Cambridge Analytica’s website as its overseas office: “SCL Canada”. A day later, that online reference vanished.

There had to be a connection between the two companies. Between the various Leave campaigns. Between the referendum and Mercer. It was too big a coincidence. But everyone – AggregateIQ, Cambridge Analytica, Leave.EU, Vote Leave – denied it. AggregateIQ had just been a short-term “contractor” to Cambridge Analytica. There was nothing to disprove this. We published the known facts. On 29 March, article 50 was triggered.

Then I meet Paul, the first of two sources formerly employed by Cambridge Analytica. He is in his late 20s and bears mental scars from his time there. “It’s almost like post-traumatic shock. It was so… messed up. It happened so fast. I just woke up one morning and found we’d turned into the Republican fascist party. I still can’t get my head around it.”

He laughed when I told him the frustrating mystery that was AggregateIQ. “Find Chris Wylie,” he said.

Who’s Chris Wylie?

“He’s the one who brought data and micro-targeting [individualised political messages] to Cambridge Analytica. And he’s from west Canada. It’s only because of him that AggregateIQ exist. They’re his friends. He’s the one who brought them in.”

There wasn’t just a relationship between Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ, Paul told me. They were intimately entwined, key nodes in Robert Mercer’s distributed empire. “The Canadians were our back office. They built our software for us. They held our database. If AggregateIQ is involved then Cambridge Analytica is involved. And if Cambridge Analytica is involved, then Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon are involved."

The Military Connection

What’s been lost in the US coverage of this “data analytics” firm is the understanding of where the firm came from: deep within the military-industrial complex. A weird British corner of it populated, as the military establishment in Britain is, by old-school Tories. Geoffrey Pattie, a former parliamentary under-secretary of state for defence procurement and director of Marconi Defence Systems, used to be on the board, and Lord Marland, David Cameron’s pro-Brexit former trade envoy, a shareholder.

Steve Tatham was the head of psychological operations for British forces in Afghanistan. The Observer has seen letters endorsing him from the UK Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and Nato.

SCL/Cambridge Analytica was not some startup created by a couple of guys with a Mac PowerBook. It’s effectively part of the British defence establishment. And, now, too, the American defence establishment. An ex-commanding officer of the US Marine Corps operations centre, Chris Naler, has recently joined Iota Global, a partner of the SCL group.

This is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. Us. David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University and an authority in psyops and propaganda, says it is “an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.

Paul and David, another ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, were working at the firm when it introduced mass data-harvesting to its psychological warfare techniques. “It brought psychology, propaganda and technology together in this powerful new way,” David tells me.

And it was Facebook that made it possible. It was from Facebook that Cambridge Analytica obtained its vast dataset in the first place. Earlier, psychologists at Cambridge University harvested Facebook data (legally) for research purposes and published pioneering peer-reviewed work about determining personality traits, political partisanship, sexuality and much more from people’s Facebook “likes”. And SCL/Cambridge Analytica contracted a scientist at the university, Dr Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest new Facebook data. And he did so by paying people to take a personality quiz which also allowed not just their own Facebook profiles to be harvested, but also those of their friends – a process then allowed by the social network.

Finding “persuadable” voters is key for any campaign and with its treasure trove of data, Cambridge Analytica could target people high in neuroticism, for example, with images of immigrants “swamping” the country. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter.

Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee. Its key objective, according to a memo the Observer has seen, was “voter disengagement” and “to persuade Democrat voters to stay at home”: a profoundly disquieting tactic. It has previously been claimed that suppression tactics were used in the campaign, but this document provides the first actual evidence.


Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University, helps me understand the context. She has researched the US military’s funding and use of psychological research for use in torture. “The capacity for this science to be used to manipulate emotions is very well established. This is military-funded technology that has been harnessed by a global plutocracy and is being used to sway elections in ways that people can’t even see, don’t even realise is happening to them,” she says. “It’s about exploiting existing phenomenon like nationalism and then using it to manipulate people at the margins. To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.

“We are in an information war and billionaires are buying up these companies, which are then employed to go to work in the heart of government. That’s a very worrying situation.”

Just as Robert Mercer began his negotiations with SCL boss Alexander Nix about an acquisition, SCL was retained by several government ministers in Trinidad and Tobago. The brief involved developing a micro-targeting programme for the governing party of the time. And AggregateIQ – the same company involved in delivering Brexit for Vote Leave – was brought in to build the targeting platform.

David said: “The standard SCL/CA method is that you get a government contract from the ruling party. And this pays for the political work. So, it’s often some bullshit health project that’s just a cover for getting the minister re-elected. But in this case, our government contacts were with Trinidad’s national security council.”

The security work was to be the prize for the political work. Documents seen by the Observer show that this was a proposal to capture citizens’ browsing history en masse, recording phone conversations and applying natural language processing to the recorded voice data to construct a national police database, complete with scores for each citizen on their propensity to commit crime.

“The plan put to the minister was Minority Report. It was pre-crime. And the fact that Cambridge Analytica is now working inside the Pentagon is, I think, absolutely terrifying,” said David.

These documents throw light on a significant and under-reported aspect of the Trump administration. The company that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department. Its former vice-president Steve Bannon now sits in the White House. It is also reported to be in discussions for “military and homeland security work”.

In the US, the government is bound by strict laws about what data it can collect on individuals. But, for private companies anything goes. Is it unreasonable to see in this the possible beginnings of an authoritarian surveillance state?


Trinidad was SCL’s first project using big data for micro-targeting before the firm was acquired by Mercer. It was the model that Mercer was buying into. And it brought together all the players: the Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, AggregateIQ, Chris Wylie, and two other individuals who would play a role in this story: Mark Gettleson, a focus group expert who had previously worked for the Lib Dems. And Thomas Borwick, the son of Victoria Borwick, the Conservative MP for Kensington. 

Because to understand where and how Brexit is connected to Trump, it’s right here. These relationships, which thread through the middle of Cambridge Analytica, are the result of a transatlantic partnership that stretches back years. Nigel Farage and Bannon have been close associates since at least 2012. Bannon opened the London arm of his news website Breitbart in 2014 to support Ukip – the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”, he told the New York Times.

Britain had always been key to Bannon’s plans, another ex-Cambridge Analytica employee told me on condition of anonymity. It was a crucial part of his strategy for changing the entire world order.

“He believes that to change politics, you have to first change the culture. And Britain was key to that. He thought that where Britain led, America would follow. The idea of Brexit was hugely symbolically important to him.”

On 29 March, the day article 50 was triggered, I called one of the smaller campaigns, Veterans for Britain. Cummings’s strategy was to target people in the last days of the campaign and Vote Leave gave the smaller group £100,000 in the last week. A small number of people they identified as “persuadable” were bombarded with more than a billion ads, the vast majority in the last few days.

I asked David Banks, Veterans for Britain’s head of communications, why they spent the money with AggregateIQ.

“I didn’t find AggegrateIQ. They found us.
They rang us up and pitched us. There’s no conspiracy here. They were this Canadian company which was opening an office in London to work in British politics and they were doing stuff that none of the UK companies could offer. Their targeting was based on a set of technologies that hadn’t reached the UK yet. A lot of it was proprietary, they’d found a way of targeting people based on behavioural insights. They approached us.”


Martin Moore of King’s College, London, pointed out that elections were a newly fashionable tool for would-be authoritarian states. “Look at Erdo─čan in Turkey. What Theresa May is doing is quite anti-democratic in a way. It’s about enhancing her power very deliberately. It’s not about a battle of policy between two parties.”

This is Britain in 2017. A Britain that increasingly looks like a “managed” democracy. Paid for a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook. And enabled by us. If we let this referendum result stand, we are giving it our implicit consent. This isn’t about Remain or Leave. It goes far beyond party politics. It’s about the first step into a brave, new, increasingly undemocratic world.

Note: This story has been kicking around, slowly emerging, for the past four months. I posted on it in February. This latest article from The Observer connects all the major dots and adds a couple of critical points to the earlier work. Most importantly it links Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Cambridge
Analytica, AggregateIQ to this incredible, democratic suppression machine used to manipulate elections and skew results. Here are a couple of salient passages from my previous posts.

It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.

“The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.

Facebook profiles – especially people’s “likes” – could be correlated across millions of others to produce uncannily accurate results. ...with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself. “Computers see us in a more robust way than we see ourselves.”


rumleyfips said...

Thanks for connecting some dots.

Anonymous said...

Just read this at LG&M. Good to know.
Also, "Crosscheck" for voter suppression...

The Mound of Sound said...

Kudos for The Guardian/Observer for pursuing this story far past what appeared in other media. They really stitched this up, well enough that there's no excuse for governments with elections a year or two away to address it. What will Justin do to ensure that Canadian voters can't be brainwashed? He'd better get off his ass and get moving or it'll be too late.

The Mound of Sound said...

LALI, I couldn't find any reference to the Observer article at Lawyers, Guns & Money. This story has been around for four months and outlets from the Globe & Mail to Scientific American have written about it. The important stories have come from The Guardian and its weekend paper, The Observer. This Observer report is the most comprehensive to be found. No one else has delved into individuals such as Chris Wylie and explained how he has been instrumental in the links between Cambridge Analytical, AggregateIQ, Steve Bannon and, naturally, Donald Trump.

The reporting by Carole Cadwalladr is as fine a work of investigative journalism as I've ever seen. It puts her up in the leagues of Sy Hersh in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

It was linked to by commenter 'crunchy frog' in the post 'Bad calls, working the refs and politics, etc."

Anonymous said...

I read the complete article via the link you provided, and indeed it is a compelling piece of journalism.

What the article doesn't answer, and what I still haven't worked out, is what these forces of the right wing are out to achieve in the final analysis, particularly if there is a Russian connection as mentioned.

Is it merely to be in charge and boss everyone around? Is that what gets these goofs off? Seems a bit limiting. The world is set up to be a pyramid scheme as it is, funneling the resulting money into the hands of people who don't need any more, but who always feel the need for more. Or is it to be utterly smug and predict the way people in general act just for the intellectual pleasure of it all? What is the end game if you are already Croesus rich and essentially live the life of a potentate right here and now?

Apparently as just a voice in the crowd I don't understand the need for absolute power these cretins evince when to all intents and purposes, they have it now. Maybe they like lining people up like soldiers on parade and receiving salutes to bolster their image of self-worth.

In any case the "why" of all this isn't clear to me. I see Rebel Media got its comeuppance in France, as the very strange Le Pen got hammered, so Aggregate IQ, the Russky money Le Pen got (in the usual let's try to bugger things up any way I can that Vlad enjoys) and Cambridge Analytica must be annoyed.

One assumes. Or is it a double-double cross?


Anonymous said...

They prolly don't even know the 'why'- because of unbridled power, greed and seared conscience.

The Mound of Sound said...

BM, the motives could be varied. For some it's an obvious path to power and perhaps nothing more. Others may see it as a way to subvert democracy and transfer control to those who pull our strings. Some may wish to weaken, even destabilize targeted states and their societies. These questions are why it's useful to read the reporting that began coming out four or five months back. The Observer's Carole Caddwaldr shows how an enterprising journalist can produce amazing results if she/he just keeps digging and doesn't let go.

John B. said...

There's Cambridge, Google and Facebook. And then there's this (unless it's bullshit):

A free flashlight - how nice. I wonder whether these are the only applications performing this type of customer service.

I remember "The President's Analyst" from the 1960s.

They came up with a better way: convince everybody to buy their own miniature phone booths and carry them around in their pockets. Then proceed toward the next phase:

Your average twenty-something thumb-bumper probably wouldn't even care. He'd be itching to be the first in his social network to get the injection to avoid the inevitable nervous breakdown he would suffer when he senses that he could be unconnected and left out of something for a few minutes.

Toby said...

Mound, your Guardian article has a link to another by the same author which illustrates a big part of the problem: Facebook.

Carole Cadwalladr asks, "Or to put it another way: a company with no oversight and accountability that uses an algorithm that it allows no one to see is developing an AI that will decide if you are or aren’t a terrorist. What could possibly go wrong?"

"Mark Zuckerberg says change the world, yet he sets the rules"


Google provides the framework for blogs such as this. We can be sure that someone is collecting the data.

The Mound of Sound said...

I know, Toby. When I once bothered with such things I would periodically check visitor IDs and found, in approximate descending order, Lockheed, US Naval intelligence, US Army intelligence, the CIA, the FBI (once) and the Speaker of the US Senate (twice). Those little sidebar maps that show visitor locations would alert me to when someone visited from Washington, Langley, and similar sites of US security agencies. Those were the "open" hits - with IDs and everything. They even used an odd type of browser, the name I'll have to look up, that apparently allowed the immediate download of the entire blog, all 11,000+ posts. Oh, I know - Rippers 0. At the time no one knew much about it. I just looked it up again and this is the description - "Rippers 0 browser is an employee web monitoring utility, used by large corporations and governments. This browser utility monitors employees activity while they are using the Internet with Internet Explorer, Firefox etc." It seems they were actively tracking my internet use. Lovely. Maybe I should start monitoring that again.

Toby said...

Mound, if you are interested, the guy to follow on this is Eben Moglen, "a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University, and is the founder, Director-Counsel and Chairman of Software Freedom Law Center."

There are several videos at Youtube and elsewhere of Moglen speaking on Internet freedom and security. His favourite targets include Facebook, Apple, Google and smart phones. Here are a couple of links.

By the way, as I type this my ad blocker is blocking 11 requests which is relatively mild. Some sites bombard visitors with 30 or more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to the Observer's article, Mound. Like BM above, I was curious about a Russian connection and started looking into a Cambridge University researcher mentioned in the article, Dr Aleksandr Kogan (the Russian version of Alexander Cohen). If you punch his name into Google, you'll see two curious things: 1) the first hit that comes up is Dr. Aleksandr Spectre, and 2) there's almost no information about him.

I found some answers though in another important article on the SCL/Cambridge Analytica connection to Trump and Brexit that appeared in a Swiss publication called Das Magazin. The article by Grassegger and Krogerus focuses mainly on the reaction of Dr Michal Kosinski to the use of his psychometric techniques for political purposes. There's an accurate English translation on the Canadian blog Down with Tyranny.

The Grassegger and Krogerus article reveals a few important things. First, in 2014, Kogan approached the Polish-born researcher Kosinski looking to license his research datasets on behalf of SCL. Kosinski refused. A 2015 Guardian article by Davies, reveals that Kogan then started a company, Global Science Research (GSR), to replicate Kosinski's research. He began working with SCL using Amazon's crowdsourcing marketplace Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to access a large pool of Facebook profiles, hoovering up tens of thousands of individuals’ demographic data—names, locations, birthdays, genders—as well as their Facebook Likes. The resulting data was used in 2015 by SCL/CA to promote Ted Cruz in the GOP presidential candidate race from long-shot to runner up. In 2016, of course, it was used to promote Trump.

Second, according to Grassegger and Krogerus, Kogan at some point marries, changes his name to Aleksandr Spectre (Bond fans will like that) and moves to Singapore. Nevertheless, he remains listed as a research associate at Cambridge University under both Kogan and Spectre. Neither listing reveals his connection to SCL/CA or Brexit/Cruz/Trump. His bio under the name Spectre reveals a Canadian connection, namely a post-doc fellowship at U of Toronto.

Third, according to Grassegger and Krogerus, there is method to Trump's "striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages." These mixed messages are driven by research to micro-target various segments of the population, giving "a different message for every voter."

Finally, according to Grassenger and Krogerus, SCL/CA was in talks with Theresa May, but refuses to comment on them. Alistair Knott of Otago University in New Zealand has an excellent deck of slides summarizing what's known.

To sum up, I haven't been able to draw a hard link through Kogan/Spectre to Russia. We're still missing too many pieces of the puzzle.


Anonymous said...

That was my question upon reading this. Are the answers to be found in the Powell memo? Capitalism and democracy are often conflated.