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Who Owns our Personal Data?

 

Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual … So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.

                                              — Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, October 2016.

 

  Last year data surpassed oil, and is now the most      valuable commodity in the world.      

                                                                                                   –    Brittany Kaiser

 

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.

                                                                                                   –    C. S. Lewis
                                                                                                                            Screwtape Proposes a Toast
                                                                                                                                             and Other Pieces

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This past week I watched a (Netflix) documentary  – “The Great Hack”. It tells about a company called Cambridge Analytica (which was) a full-service data-driven communications company.  They ‘mined’ Facebook data, developed campaign plans, and hired themselves out … to various groups, including Trump’s election campaign.  

Before that, they worked for the Ted Cruz campaign; and were instrumental in Brittain’s ‘decision’ to leave the European Union. 

 

[Brexit is an abbreviation for “British exit,” referring to the UK’s decision in a June 23, 2016 referendum to leave the European Union (EU).]

 

David Carroll (an associate professor at the Parsons School of Design, and) a father of two  … wanted to know how our data was being used … ‘Who was selling us Fear?’ … and began looking for answers.  He came to the realization that the worst possible data scenario had already occurred, when he found out about what Cambridge Analytica had been doing (to make money … “business”, you know).  He learned that CA’s parent company SCL was in London (where the data used in the Trump campaign was being analyzed). He realized that he could use a British lawyer to ask the British courts to FORCE Cambridge Analytica to ‘fully disclose’ to him – WHAT data they had on him, HOW they analyzed and used it, etc. … and “Could he opt out?!”

 

The documentary shows interviews of numerous people of (considerable) interest … including several of Cambridge Analytica’s top executives.

 

What is of (great) interest TO ME – is that of ALL these, ONLY TWO were able (through a process / some time & soul searching) to come to the realization that what the company had been doing was (for Numerous Reasons) WRONG. … Their HUMANITY (finally) won out.

 

[These two are – Chris Wylie (who helped set up Cambridge Analytica) … and Brittany Kaiser, their former Director of Business Development]

 

It is (certainly) of interest – that IT TOOK TIME … for these two     to ‘come around’. But it is of equal interest – that these others NEVER DID (and perhaps never WILL.  Who can say?)

 

And

the question we should be asking ourselves is – ‘What is the difference?’   That is – What determines whether a person will (or can) regain their Humanity?

 

[Here, by the way, are my assumptions –

Whatever ANY person does (merely) shows us

what we (each & all) are CAPABLE of.  (whether it’s good or bad. As Solzhenitsyn says –

 “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”)

 

Also, I want to say –

That it is (fully) legitimate to categorize an Evil Act

BY ITS EFFECTS alone. (That is, and act may (well) be evil, even though the person doing it “meant well”)]

About 8 years ago I (somehow) got myself to read the entirety of the book “Murder City” by Charles Bowden.  It’s about the horrors in Ciudad Juarez (opposite the US town of El Paso)

The phrase la linea (the line) sometimes means ‘the border’ (between the US & Mexico)  But often (in Juarez) it refers to the unbroken line between the gangs, the drug lords, the police, and the government.  (It’s horrible)

There are people whose ‘culture’ is centered around KILLING.  In Juarez, it is not unusual to find a severed human head atop a fence post (or otherwise openly displayed.  And this is done as a matter of “discipline”)

 

AND (within Humanity) are 

people (like Mother Teresa) who devote all their life energy

ministering to the poorest of the poor.

 

We seem to have well mastered the arts of Hell;  (heaven, though we dabble in it, we’re not so good at)

 

But the Big Question is-

 

How do we go about choosing Heaven?  (individually … & collectively)?

 

One thing I can say about the psyche of the (resistant) CA executives is that they are infected with ‘gold fever’.

[“There are strange things done in the Midnight Sun

by the men who moil for gold … ]

They are (passionate & devout) materialists.  Their Highest Loyalty is NOT to something (abstract) … which we might call HUMANITY.  They are power-addicted.     Mmm?

 

[and I can see that I’m going to have to soon ‘bite the bullet’ … and write about (the cosmic insanity of)  ‘Relativism’]

 

Anyway, Brittany Kaiser says that (in a campaign) not everyone gets equal treatment.  They realized that while most people are fixed in their views … there are some who are not … referred to as ‘PERSUADABLES’.   And it’s these which get identified and targeted. She says, “We bombarded them through blogs, websites, articles, videos, ads … every platform you can imagine … until they saw the world the way we wanted them to … until they voted for our candidate.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“The Great Hack”  (2019, with Brittany Kaiser & David Carroll)

 

~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Cambridge Analytica

Former type Subsidiary
Successor Emerdata
Founded 2013
Defunct 1 May 2018
Headquarters London, UK
Key people Alexander Nix (CEO)[1]

Robert Mercer (investor)[2]

Rebekah Mercer (investor)

Steve Bannon (vice president, former)[3]

Parent SCL Group[4]

Cambridge Analytica Ltd (CA) was a British political consulting firm which combined data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication during the electoral processes.[5][6] It was started in 2013 as an offshoot of the SCL Group.[7] The company closed operations in 2018 in the course of the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, although related firms still exist.[8]

The company was partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund manager who supports many politically conservative causes.[7][9] The firm maintained offices in London, New York City, and Washington, DC.[10] CEO Alexander Nix has said CA was involved in 44 US political races in 2014.[11] In 2015, CA performed data analysis services for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.[9] In 2016, CA worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign[12] as well as for Leave.EU (one of the organisations campaigning in the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership). CA’s role in those campaigns has been controversial and is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in both countries.[13][14][15] Political scientists question CA’s claims about the effectiveness of its methods of targeting voters.[16][17]

In March 2018, multiple media outlets broke news of Cambridge Analytica’s business practices. The New York Times and The Observer reported that the company had acquired and used personal data about Facebook users from an external researcher who had told Facebook he was collecting it for academic purposes.[18] Shortly afterwards, Channel 4 News aired undercover investigative videos showing Nix boasting about using prostitutes, bribery sting operations, and honey traps to discredit politicians on whom it conducted opposition research, and saying that the company “ran all of (Donald Trump’s) digital campaign”. In response to the media reports, the Information Commissioner of the UK pursued a warrant to search the company’s servers.[19][20] Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from advertising on its platform, saying that it had been deceived.[21][22] On 23 March 2018, the British High Court granted the Information Commissioner’s Office a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s London offices.[23]

The personal data of up to 87 million[24] Facebook users were acquired via the 270,000 Facebook users who used a Facebook app called “This Is Your Digital Life.”[25] By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, back in 2015, this also gave the app access to information on the user’s friends network; this resulted in the data of about 87 million users, the majority of whom had not explicitly given Cambridge Analytica permission to access their data, being collected. The app developer breached Facebook’s terms of service by giving the data to Cambridge Analytica.[26]

On 1 May 2018, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company filed for insolvency proceedings and closed operations.[27][28] Alexander Tayler, a former director for Cambridge Analytica, was appointed director of Emerdata on 28 March 2018.[29] Rebekah Mercer, Jennifer Mercer, Alexander Nix and Johnson Chun Shun Ko [zh] who has links to Erik Prince are in leadership positions at Emerdata.[30][31]

Contents

History

Cambridge Analytica (SCL USA) was incorporated in January 2015 with its registered office in Westferry Circus, London and just one staff member, its director and CEO Alexander James Ashburner Nix (also appointed in January 2015).[32] Nix is also the director of nine similar companies sharing the same registered offices in London, including Firecrest technologies, Emerdataand six SCL Group companies including “SCL elections limited”.[33] Nigel Oakes founded SCL Group, which is the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.[34]

Publicly, SCL Group called itself a “global election management agency”,[35] Politico reported it was known for involvement “in military disinformation campaigns to social media branding and voter targeting”.[9] SCL’s involvement in the political world has been primarily in the developing world where it has been used by the military and politicians to study and manipulate public opinion and political will. Slate writer Sharon Weinberger compared one of SCL’s hypothetical test scenarios to fomenting a coup.[9]

Cambridge Analytica was founded by conservative businessmen Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer. A minimum of 15 million dollars has been invested into the company by Mercer, according to The New York Times.[36] Bannon’s stake in the company was estimated at 1 to 5 million dollars, but he divested his holdings in April 2017 as required by his role as White House Chief Strategist.[37] In March 2018, Jennifer Mercer and Rebekah Mercer became directors of Emerdata limited.[38] In March 2018 it became public by Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, that Cambridge Analytica’s first activities were founded on a data set, which its parent company SCL bought 2014 from a company named Global Science Research founded by Aleksandr Kogan[39]who worked as a psychologist at Cambridge.

Per the Associated Press, Data Propria, a data analysis firm launched May 2018, is run by former officials at Cambridge Analytica.[40][41][42]

In July 2018, several former Cambridge Analytica staff launched Auspex International, a company intended to influence politics and society in Africa and the Middle East.[43][44][45][46][47][48]

Methods

CA’s data analysis methods were to a large degree based on the academic work of Michal Kosinski. In 2008, Kosinski had joined the Psychometrics Centre of Cambridge University where he then developed with his colleagues a profiling system using general online data, Facebook-likes, and smartphone data.[49][50] He showed that with a limited number of “likes”, people can be analysed better than friends or relatives can do and that individual psychological targeting is a powerful tool to influence people.[49]

CA would collect data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer behaviour, internet activity, and other public and private sources. According to The Guardian, CA used psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users’ permission or knowledge.[51] Another source of information was the “Cruz Crew” mobile app that tracked physical movements and contacts and according to the Associated Press, invaded personal data more than previous presidential campaign apps.[52]

Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual … So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.

— Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, October 2016.[1]

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaking in November 2017.

The company claimed to use “data enhancement and audience segmentation techniques” providing “psychographic analysis” for a “deeper knowledge of the target audience”. The company uses the Big Five model of personality [11][10] Using what it calls “behavioral microtargeting” the company indicates that it can predict “needs” of subjects and how these needs may change over time. Services then can be individually targeted for the benefit of its clients from the political arena, governments, and companies providing “a better and more actionable view of their key audiences.” According to Sasha Issenberg, CA indicates that it can tell things about an individual he might not even know about himself.[7][53]

CA derived much of its personality data on online surveys which it conducts on an ongoing basis. For each political client, the firm would narrow voter segments from 32 different personality styles it attributes to every adult in the United States. The personality data would inform the tone of the language used in ad messages or voter contact scripts, while additional data is used to determine voters’ stances on particular issues.[54]

The data would get updated with monthly surveys, asking about political preferences and how people get the information they use to make decisions. It also covered consumer topics about different brands and preferred products, building up an image of how someone shops as much as how they vote.[55]

Channel 4 News investigation

Channel 4 News, a news programme broadcast by the British public service Channel 4, conducted a four-month investigation into Cambridge Analytica starting in November 2017. An undercover reporter posed as a potential customer for Cambridge Analytica, hoping to help Sri Lankan candidates get elected. Video footage from this operation was published on 19 March 2018.[56] From the footage, Cambridge Analytica executives say they worked on over 200 elections across the world.[57] Alexander Nix was recorded in this investigation, talking “unguardedly about the company’s practices”.[58] Nix said that his company uses honey traps, bribery stings, and prostitutes, for opposition research.[59] For example, Nix offered to discredit political opponents in Sri Lanka with suggestive videos using “beautiful Ukrainian girls” and offers of bribes, even if the opponents did not accept the offers.[60] He also said he uses “Israeli companies” to entrap political opponents with bribes and sex, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that it was referring to Psy-Group.[61][62] Zamel signed a memorandum of understanding for Psy-Group with Cambridge Analytica on 14 December 2016.[63][64][62]

Cambridge Analytica said that the video footage was “edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent” the recorded conversations and company’s business practices. Nix said that he had “entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios”, but insisted his company does not engage in entrapment or bribery.[65]

In the third part of the series, Nix also said that Cambridge Analytica “ran all the digital campaign” for Trump. Nix stated they used communications that would be self-destructive, leaving no incriminating evidence. After the news segment was broadcast, the board of Cambridge Analytica suspended Nix as chief executive officer. The company also released a statement that the allegations did not represent the ethics of the company, and an independent entity would investigate Nix’s statements.[66]

The investigation also raised questions regarding campaign finance law. During the 2016 election, the company was employed both by Trump’s campaign and Robert Mercer’s Make America Number 1 Super PAC which supported Trump. While PACs are not limited in the amount of funds they can spend on behalf of a candidate, they are not allowed to coordinate strategy with the campaigns they are supporting. Nix’s statements in the recorded video describe how the Trump campaign itself could “take the high road” and “stay clean”, while the negative attacks were handled by the firm and the Super PAC, in a way which makes it “unattributable, untrackable”. These statements potentially suggested unlawful coordination between Trump’s campaign and the PAC, although Cambridge Analytica has denied this.[67]

Assessment of impact

Canadian whistleblower Christopher Wylie who was the former director of research at Cambridge Analytica

Political scientists have been highly skeptical of claims made by Cambridge Analytica about the effectiveness of its microtargeting of voters (microtargeting refers to the process of “analyzing data to predict the behavior, interests, and opinions held by specific groups of people and then serving them the messages they’re most likely to respond to”).[68][16][17] Political scientists note that access to digital data is not going to provide significantly more information than from public voter databases, and the digital data has limited value over time as the preferences of voters change.[16] Political scientists also note that it is hard to infer political values from personality traits, which means that it is easy to mistarget the messages that are sent to voters with specific personality traits.[16] Research discussed by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College showed that it is extremely hard to alter voters’ preferences because many likely voters are already committed partisans; as a result, it is easier to simply mobilize partisan voters.[69][16] Tufts University political scientist Eitan Hersh, who has published on microtargeting in campaigns, has expressed strong skepticism about Cambridge Analytica’s methods and their purported effectiveness, saying “Every claim about psychographics etc made by or about [Cambridge Analytica] is BS.”[70]

In 2017, CA claimed that it has psychological profiles of 220 million US citizens based on 5,000 separate data sets.[71] In March 2017, The New York Times reported that CA had exaggerated its capabilities: “Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign.”[13] Trump aides have also disputed CA’s role in the campaign, describing it as “modest” and noting that none of the company’s efforts involved psychographics.[13]

According to an aide and consultant for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, their campaign stopped using CA after its psychographic models failed to identify likely Cruz supporters. The Cruz campaign ceased access to all of Cambridge’s data after the South Carolina Republican primary on 20 February 2016 when Cruz came in third after Trump and Rubio.[13][72]

Privacy issues

The use of personal data collected without knowledge or permission to establish sophisticated models of user’s personalities raises ethical and privacy issues.[51] CA operated out of the United States; its operations would be illegal in Europe with its stricter privacy laws.[52] While Cruz was outspoken about protecting personal information from the government, his database of CA has been described as “political-voter surveillance“.[52]

Regarding CA’s use of Facebook users, a speaker for CA indicated that these users gave permission when signing up with the provider, while Facebook declared that “misleading people or misusing information” is in violation of Facebook’s policies.[51] In 2015, Facebook indicated that it was investigating the matter.[51] In March 2018, Facebook announced that it had suspended the accounts of Strategic Communication Laboratories for failing to delete data on Facebook users that had been improperly collected.[73]

Alexander Nix suggested that data collection and microtargeting benefits the voters – because they receive messages about issues they care about. However, digital rights protection groups raised concerns that private information is collected, stored, and shared while individuals are “left in the dark about [it]” and have no control.[74]

Significant backlash against Facebook came to light in March 2018, resulting in controversy as well as a $37 billion drop in the market capitalization of Facebook, as of 20 March.[75] Due to the scandal of enabling monetization of Facebook personal data, one assessment was that only 41% of Facebook users trust the company.[76] On 26 March, the US Federal Trade Commissionannounced it is “conducting an open investigation of Facebook Inc’s privacy practices following the disclosure that 50 million users’ data got into the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.”[77] In March 2019 Facebook acknowledged it had concerns about “improper data-gathering practices” by CA, months before the previously reported onset-of-alert at December 2015.[78]

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