Brittany Kaiser talks about her time inside the controversial political data firm and why she is speaking out now
It was the summer of 2007. Brittany Kaiser was still not 21, but she was one of a handful of full-time employees 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 used to students a few years earlier.
A decade subsequently, the picture has darkened, as Hughes lately lamented when he complained about the ” negative role “~ ATAGEND 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: the commission 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 corporation at the centre of a world tale about the use of data and dirty tricks.
The company’s work on Donald Trump’s election campaign left her seem” incredibly internally conflicted”, but she insists she was only doing her chore; her political positions 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 be used make excuses for these people? Why? I’m so tired of constructing apologizes for old white boys. Fucking inferno .”
She says she believes that Silicon Valley has much to answer for.” There’s a much wider story that I suppose needs to be told about how people can protect themselves, and their own data .”
Her disclosures arrive 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 expedition- from Obama’s campaign to trying to secure business with parties and corporate interests in Ethiopia, Lithuania, Romania, Nigeria and Zambia; and from Occupy to Trump’s presidential win party- tells much about the bizarre nation 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 be permitted to pull strings at Facebook, which had relocated to California. When the campaign noticed problematic things about the social media website, such as the deluge of racist and abusive substance being posted on the senator’s “wall”, Hughes, it seems, could find a solution.
On that occasion, Kaiser mentions, the platform was changed so that campaign laborers 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 disagreement around Barack Obama being friends with someone that was naked with an attack rifle ,” she mentions.
The solution was a change that entailed fans could “follow” Obama’s campaign rather than request a” friend connection “.
For the next few years, Kaiser mentions, her career diverged from US politics: she was a marketing policeman for London’s air ambulance, volunteered for human rights groups, lived in Asia and started an inward-investment company in Libya- mainly, she claims, to gain access to the country for human rights run.
These opaque foreign escapades 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 gratified Nix at a sushi eatery with some Mongolian patrons. He drilled her as a snoop 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, use techniques that portended 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 tells, realise the gap in world markets. The Republican were losing the data race; that was where the possibilities of 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 frameworks connecting data to behavioral traits and construct” a very in-depth portrait on those individuals “.
Kogan paid about 270,000 people to take his personality test. But, Kaiser mentions, Cambridge Analytica did many similar quizs- not always on Facebook- and had personality the necessary data for more than two million Americans.
” The bigger a data set that you have, the more polls, the more surveys that you have that people initiate, the more accurate your frameworks are going to be ,” she says.” That’s just a reality of data science .”
Around mid-2 015, Kaiser mentions, the company knew Facebook was changing its API regulations to curtail the data that could be harvested through questionnaires like Kogan’s.
This appears to have inspired a last-minute grab for data. In one internal email seen by the Guardian, employees are asked to identify which issues on a listing 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 listing is curiously revealing. Cambridge Analytica didn’t want to know who “liked” Eminem, Family Guy, YouTube, The Walking Dead or Mountain Dew. It was, nonetheless, interested in Facebook consumers who “liked” Mitt Romney, Walt Disney World, the US Marine Corps and Coca-Cola.
Nigeria was one of Kaiser’s first assignings. Three days ago, in one of a series of extraordinary scoops, the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr revealed details about this project, aimed at fastening the re-election of the then chairwoman, Goodluck Jonathan. He was unaware of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement.
Cadwalladr revealed details of a murky functioning by suspected Israeli hackers to discredit Johnson’s rival, Muhammadu Buhari, by finding “kompromat” on the Nigerian legislator. 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, nonetheless, was worse than computer hacking.
” They went to Nigeria, became friends with the people in Buhari’s campaign, and started sitting outside sessions in the campaign headquarters ,” she tells.” They get information by being in there, however you do that. Inducing friends with people, sitting in high-level fulfills, 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 use” honey traps “, fake news campaigns and runnings with ex-spies to swing electoral campaign around the world.
Kaiser claims she had never heard him make such asserts 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 nominees, Super Pacs and foundations. Consultants typically limit themselves to one presidential campaign, but Cambridge Analytica objective up working for two Republican primary nominees: 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.
That same year, a former Florida governor with a famous name who many supposed would secure the nomination likewise visited Cambridge Analytica’s London agency. Kaiser mentions she never gratified 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 ever insured political campaigning as a springboard to a bigger mission.
” To become a famous ad corporation in the US market; that’s what he planned from the beginning ,” she mentions.” Alexander Nix had not yet been interest in the Republicans or Democrat 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 procedures- has become something of a legend in Washington.
” Yes,’ The Embassy ‘,” Kaiser recollects, adding:” I used to actually share a key with Alexander to that mansion .”
It was not until mid-2 016 that Cambridge Analytica ultimately got the biggest ticket in Beltway politics: a contract with the presidential campaign.
It instantly sent a team of data scientists and political strategists to San Antonio, Texas, where the digital campaign was being operated. 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 provide answers definitively.
What she does know is where Nix was on the night Trump was elected, because she was there too: at the Republicans’ win party in New York, standing next to the Mercers.
In her pocket, Kaiser mentions, she also had a ticket to Hillary Clinton’s election night party. But when the Tv screens” started moving cherry-red government, red country, red country” 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 one another, 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 seemed conflicted about Trump’s victory, and still does.
Her testimony, relayed to the Guardian in recent days in a variety of Silicon Valley places, elevates many questions- about what she tells now, and what she did for the company.
It will not be easy for Kaiser to set her past behind her.
” Firms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, all of these large-scale companies, are constructing 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 likely your most valuable asset. Men shall be provided to monetise their own data- that’s their own human value- not to be exploited .”
Asked if she has any regrets, Kaiser tells she does.
” To be honest, I regret not spending all those times only working for induces I believed in, and instead merely learning about how to achieve an terminate- how to get a result. I truly know how to get a result now- and I can do it for anybody .”
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