Title Former Cambridge Analytica exec says she wants lies to stop | UK news | The Guardian
Publication Date 2018-03-23
Text Brittany Kaiser talks about her time inside the controversial political data firm and why she is speaking out now
Former Cambridge Analytica exec says she wants lies to stop
It was the summer of 2007. Brittany Kaiser was not yet 21, but she was one of a handful of full-time workers in the small digital team for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, uploading photos of the Illinois senator to something called a Facebook page.
At the next desk was another activist who knew a bit about the social media startup. Chris Hughes, 24, had worked with his Harvard roommate Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook as a tool for students a few years earlier.
A decade later, the picture has darkened, as Hughes recently lamented when he complained about the “negative role” Facebook is playing in politics.
And Kaiser, who until two weeks ago was a senior employee at Cambridge Analytica, has worked for a company involved in two of the most negative and controversial campaigns in history.
Now she wants to make those secrets public, becoming the second former Cambridge Analytica employee to come forward in less than a week.
Her motive for doing so is likely to come under scrutiny: this has been a catastrophic week for the firm – and Kaiser was a senior executive. She claims, however, that it is because she wants to stop telling lies.
It seems remarkable that an Obama volunteer who studied human rights and voted for Bernie Sanders ended up working for a controversial data analytics company at the centre of a global story about the use of data and dirty tricks.
The company’s work on Donald Trump’s election campaign left her feeling “incredibly internally conflicted”, but she insists she was only doing her job; her political views have nothing to do with her decision to reveal secrets about Cambridge Analytica.
Asked why she has decided to speak out, Kaiser flares: “Why should we make excuses for these people? Why? I’m so tired of making excuses for old white men. Fucking hell.”
She says she believes that Silicon Valley has much to answer for. “There’s a much wider story that I think needs to be told about how people can protect themselves, and their own data.”
Her disclosures come almost a week after the Observer revealed new information on how data was acquired from more than 50 million Facebook friends without their consent.
Kaiser has less to say on the harvesting of this data in 2014 than she does on other issues, which is corroborated by emails, correspondence and other documents reviewed by the Guardian.
Her own journey – from Obama’s campaign to trying to secure business with political parties and corporate interests in Ethiopia, Lithuania, Romania, Nigeria and Zambia; and from Occupy to Trump’s presidential victory party – says much about the bizarre state of politics in the digital era.
Facebook was not all Kaiser and Hughes had in common when they met at Obama’s Chicago HQ; they had attended the same prestigious private school in Massachusetts. Now they were among fewer than a dozen Obama activists and volunteers on the “new media” team.
Hughes, though, stood apart. He was apparently still able to pull strings at Facebook, which had relocated to California. When the campaign noticed problematic things about the social media site, such as the deluge of racist and abusive material being posted on the senator’s “wall”, Hughes, it seems, could find a solution.
On that occasion, Kaiser says, the platform was changed so that campaign workers could pre-approve messages before they appeared.
Another leap forward for Obama 2008’s Facebook experiment was their response to the avalanche of “friend” requests tying up campaign resources, with volunteers having to check photos. “We didn’t want a media controversy around Barack Obama being friends with somebody that was naked with an assault rifle,” she says.
The solution was a change that meant fans could “follow” Obama’s campaign rather than request a “friend connection”.
For the next few years, Kaiser says, her career diverged from US politics: she was a marketing officer for London’s air ambulance, volunteered for human rights groups, lived in Asia and started an inward-investment company in Libya – primarily, she claims, to gain access to the country for human rights work.
These opaque foreign adventures appear to have caught the eye of the SCL Group, a British psy-ops company, and its ambitious chief executive, Alexander Nix. Kaiser said she first met Nix at a sushi restaurant with some Mongolian clients. He drilled her as a spy might a source, apparently telling her: “Let me get you drunk and steal your secrets.”
That was 2012, the year Obama was re-elected, this time on a much more sophisticated campaign whose backbone was “big data” and Facebook friend networks, using techniques that foreshadowed much of what was to come.
Kaiser recalls Nix getting excited when she told him she’d worked for Obama.
Kaiser worked for SCL until Cambridge Analytica was formally incorporated.
Nix, she says, saw the gap in the market. The Republicans were losing the data race; that was where the opportunities were.
The kind of personality questionnaires conducted by the Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan on Facebook were particularly important, she adds, as they allowed the company’s data scientists to build models connecting data to behavioral traits and build “a very in-depth picture on those individuals”.
Kogan paid about 270,000 people to take his personality test. But, Kaiser says, Cambridge Analytica did many similar quizzes – not always on Facebook – and had personality data for more than 2 million Americans.
“The bigger a data set that you have, the more polls, the more surveys that you have that people undertake, the more accurate your models are going to be,” she says. “That’s just a fact of data science.”
Around mid-2015, Kaiser says, the company knew Facebook was changing its API rules to restrict the data that could be harvested through questionnaires like Kogan’s.
This appears to have prompted a last-minute grab for data. In one internal email seen by the Guardian, employees are asked to identify which issues on a list of 500 Facebook “like” items would be most “useful for political modeling or commercial sales”.
It is unclear from the email where the data was coming from, but the list is curiously revealing. Cambridge Analytica didn’t want to know who “liked” Eminem, Family Guy, YouTube, The Walking Dead or Mountain Dew. It was, however, interested in Facebook users who “liked” Mitt Romney, Walt Disney World, the US Marine Corps and Coca-Cola.
Nigeria was one of Kaiser’s first assignments. Three days ago, in one of a series of extraordinary scoops, the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr revealed details about this project, aimed at securing the re-election of the then president, Goodluck Jonathan. He was unaware of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement.
Cambridge Analytica's ruthless bid to sway the vote in Nigeria Read more
Cadwalladr revealed details of a murky operation by suspected Israeli hackers to discredit Johnson’s rival, Muhammadu Buhari, by finding “kompromat” on the Nigerian politician. Asked about this, Kaiser confirms she knew the Israeli contractors.
“They were working for the same client that we were working for.” Who was that? “Oil billionaires,” she replies.
Kaiser’s story of how the Israelis got their information, however, was worse than computer hacking.
“They went to Nigeria, became friends with the people in Buhari’s campaign, and started sitting in meetings in the campaign headquarters,” she says. “They got information by being in there, however you do that. Making friends with people, sitting in high-level meetings, working on their computers.”
This, she claims, was being done independently of Cambridge Analytica.
Earlier this week there was another scoop, based on undercover footage from C4 News which captured Nix boasting about using “honey traps”, fake news campaigns and operations with ex-spies to swing election campaigns around the world.
Kaiser claims she had never heard him make such claims before. “Alexander is known to oversell everything to close the deal.”
By 2015, Nix and Kaiser were pitching to increase their market share in the most lucrative market of all: the US presidential campaign.
Cambridge Analytica had already worked for several 2014 midterm candidates, Super Pacs and foundations. Consultants usually limit themselves to one presidential campaign, but Cambridge Analytica ended up working for two Republican primary candidates: Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.
Prior to that, Kaiser says, the company also made unsuccessful bids for business with Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie.
Cambridge Analytica scandal: the biggest revelations so far Read more
That same year, a former Florida governor with a famous name who many suspected would secure the nomination also visited Cambridge Analytica’s London office. Kaiser says she never met Jeb Bush, but that according to Nix, the Republican political scion wanted the firm to join his future campaign for the White House.
She claims Nix always saw political campaigning as a springboard to a bigger mission.
“To become a famous advertising company in the US market; that’s what he planned from the beginning,” she says. “Alexander Nix has no interest in the Republicans or Democrats winning or losing.”
That does not seem to tally with the ideological zeal driving Cambridge Analytica’s patrons, the Republican billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who later bankrolled Trump’s campaign. They worked closely with Steve Bannon, whose townhouse on Capitol Hill – an office for Breitbart, and a nerve-centre for his political operations – has become something of a legend in Washington.
“Yes, ‘The Embassy’,” Kaiser recalls, adding: “I used to actually share a key with Alexander to that house.”
It was not until mid-2016 that Cambridge Analytica finally got the biggest ticket in Beltway politics: a contract with the presidential campaign.
It immediately sent a team of data scientists and political strategists to San Antonio, Texas, where the digital campaign was being run. Others went to the headquarters in Trump Towers, New York.
Questions have been asked about the legality of a London-based company, with a largely British staff, working on the campaign. Kaiser cannot answer them definitively.
What she does know is where Nix was on the night Trump was elected, because she was there too: at the Republicans’ victory party in New York, standing next to the Mercers.
In her pocket, Kaiser says, she also had a ticket to Hillary Clinton’s election night party. But when the TV screens “started going red state, red state, red state” before declaring Trump the victor, she knew she didn’t need it.
Kaiser says she turned to the Mercers, who were not watching the screen, and relayed the news. “You could just see them looking at each other, like: ‘Holy shit … we just became the most powerful people in politics’.” According to her account, Nix told her: “We did it.”
Kaiser says she felt conflicted about Trump’s victory, and still does.
Her testimony, relayed to the Guardian in recent days in a variety of Silicon Valley locations, raises many questions – about what she says now, and what she did for the company.
It will not be easy for Kaiser to put her past behind her.
“Corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, all of these large companies, are making tens or hundreds of billions of dollars off of monetising people’s data,” Kaiser says. “I’ve been telling companies and governments for years that data is probably your most valuable asset. Individuals should be able to monetise their own data – that’s their own human value – not to be exploited.”
Asked if she has any regrets, Kaiser says she does.
“To be honest, I regret not spending all those years only working for causes I believed in, and instead just learning about how to achieve an end – how to get a result. I really know how to get a result now – and I can do it for anybody.”