Fifty million Facebook users, after having been assured that “their data” was safe, found it had been siphoned away and used by the British firm Cambridge Analytica presumably for American political purposes. The unauthorized data retention was revealed by a Canadian whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who worked for “a company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL), one of whose subsidiaries, SCL Elections, would go on to create data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica”.
Cambridge Analytica offers services to businesses and political parties and claims to be able to combine predictive analytics, behavioural sciences, and data-driven advertising technology to equip their clients with the necessary data and insights to drive campaigns.The firm went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during US President Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016.
The feat was accomplished by paying users to take a personality test through an app whose real purpose was to trick participants into granting permission to access their Facebook accounts and through it, the data of their friends.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who may be called to testify before legislative committees, portrayed himself as a victim of deceit. What Cambridge Analytica had done was a violation of policy and an abuse of the firm’s trusting nature. “On CNN, Zuckerberg said Facebook made a mistake in 2015, by not following up enough after learning of Cambridge Analytica’s data mining. At the time, Facebook received a formal certification that the data has been deleted. But it apparently had not been.“I don’t know about you, but I’m used to when people legally certify that they are going to do something, that they do it. But I think this was clearly a mistake in retrospect,” Zuckerberg said. “We need to make sure we don’t make that mistake ever again.”
In the aftermath of the scandal Zuckerberg vowed to review thousands of 3rd party apps to prevent a repetition of the incident, as if Cambridge Analytica was just some other app developer that had slipped through the cracks. But the firm was clearly different. Its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories was headed by Nigel Oakes is described by the Times of London as having “social and business links to the heart of the Conservative Party, royalty and the British military.”
According to its website, SCL has influenced elections in Italy, Latvia, Ukraine, Albania, Romania, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Colombia, Antigua, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Trinidad & Tobago. While the company initially got involved in elections in the United Kingdom, it ceased to do so after 1997 because staff members did not exhibit the same “aloof sensibility” as with projects abroad.
Nor were these connections entirely an idle boast. Reuters reports “the British government had three contracts in the past with Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL … the contracts with were with the Ministry of Defence between 2014-2015, the Home Office (interior ministry) in 2009 and the Foreign Office in 2008-2009.” The Guardian adds that “Cambridge Analytica’s parent company was granted provisional “List X” status by the Ministry of Defense until 2013, granting it access to secret documents.” There still exists a video of Oakes lecturing at the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) at the State Department in 2012 suggesting they were not entirely unknown on the American side of the Atlantic.
Joseph Chancellor, “the co-director of a company that harvested data from tens of millions of Facebook users before selling it to the controversial data analytics firms Cambridge Analytica is currently working for the tech giant [Facebook] as an in-house psychologist.” As of this writing he’s still there.
The firm were not — or at least did not seem to be — some random third party application developer. They had some bona fides.
Then there’s the historically curious fact that Facebook embeds seconded to the Trump campaign helped him win the 2016 presidential election. “Facebook’s employees showed up for work at his office multiple days a week to provide guidance on how to best use the company’s services.” It would be the height of irony if Trump were using data stolen from the users of Facebook itself.
This makes Slate’s recent article linking Cambridge Analytica to Russia even more curious than it would otherwise be. Slate asks, “was Cambridge Analytica a nexus for collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian election interference campaign? No evidence directly supports that theory yet. But what is known supports another theory: that Cambridge Analytica knowingly used Russian disinformation to help the Trump campaign win the 2016 election.”
That theory would have to explain how a company with strong links to Britain and interesting connections to Facebook wound up being the agent of Putin’s nefarious plans. While that theoretically could have happened, the probabilities are against it. “When presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.” Yet in this case, what are the reasonable assumptions?
Perhaps faced with the deepening mysteries in this wilderness of mirrors special counsel Robert Mueller is doing the only thing he can reliably do: find someone who lied to the FBI.
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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.
Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of “open curtains” is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The “curtains” may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone’s data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions … (from a review by E. Greenwood).
Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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