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Smoke Signals from the Swamp: Kushner, the Mercers and Cambridge Analytica – Round One

As you continue to read, I want you to imagine an iceberg. Both Forbes and the New York Times thought they were being told, and telling us, the true story of Cambridge Analytica. But they and we saw only a small portion of what Cambridge Analytica wanted us to see.

Despite the persistent and continuing memory loss of Devin Nunes and his Republican hear-no, see-no, know-no-collusion-no-matter-what, and all their Fox and Friends, thanks to Mueller’s indictment, we know that the Russians “knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

So the major question is: Did any of those persons known or unknown work for the Trump campaign or on the transition or in the White House, and did they cooperate in any way with that conspiracy?

This is particularly relevant considering the indictment focuses on this aspect of the conspiracy: “Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016. Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (‘Trump Campaign’) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.

For those of us who skipped law school, Emma Kohse and Benjamin Wittes of the Lawfare blog explain Mueller’s legal strategy: “The crime of conspiracy to defraud the United States is not new. It has been sitting in plain sight in the general conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. §371, since 1948 (and an earlier provision with substantially similar language dates to 1867). The statute makes it illegal for two or more persons to ‘conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.’

“Unlike conspiracy to commit an offense, conspiracy to defraud the United States need not be connected to a specific underlying crime, and ‘defraud’ is not defined. In the 1910 case Haas v. Henkel, the Supreme Court interpreted the provision broadly to include ‘any conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing, or defeating the lawful function of any department of government.’

“Notably, there is no requirement that the government be cheated out of money or property. A decade after Haas, the high court narrowed this interpretation slightly in Hammerschmidt v. United States, clarifying that conspiracy to defraud the United States includes conspiracy ‘to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful governmental functions by deceit, craft, or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest.’ In other words, to prove a claim under the defraud prong of §371, the government must show that the defendant (1) entered into an agreement (2) to obstruct a lawful function of a government agency (3) by deceitful means and (4) committed at least one overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.” (Emphasis added)

And remember Mueller’s indictment of those who acted with “the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix at the Concordia Summit for business partnerships held in New York in September. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Let’s go back in time a bit. On Nov. 22, 2016, Steve Betoni of Forbes told us “Jared Kushner Won Trump The White House.” Few knew how much credit Kushner seemingly deserved. Betoni explained that: “Kushner’s crew was able to tap into the Republican National Committee’s data machine, and it hired targeting partners like Cambridge Analytica to map voter universes and identify which parts of the Trump platform mattered most: trade, immigration or change. Tools like Deep Root drove the scaled-back TV ad spending by identifying shows popular with specific voter blocks in specific regions–say, “NCIS” for anti-Obamacare voters or “The Walking Dead” for people worried about immigration. Kushner built a custom geolocation tool that plotted the location density of about 20 voter types over a live Google Maps interface.

“Soon the data operation dictated every campaign decision: travel, fundraising, advertising, rally locations – even the topics of the speeches. ‘He put all the different pieces together,’ [Brad] Parscale says. ‘And what’s funny is the outside world was so obsessed about this little piece or that, they didn’t pick up that it was all being orchestrated so well.’” (Emphasis added.)

Slowly but surely, as the months have passed, we’ve learned more and more about Cambridge Analytica. A March 6, 2017, article by Nick Confessor and Danny Hakim of the New York Times reported on a presentation made by Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica in the midst of the 2016 campaign to New York business leaders: “Many companies compete in the market for political microtargeting, using huge data sets and sophisticated software to identify and persuade voters. But Mr. Nix’s little-known firm, Cambridge Analytica, claimed to have developed something unique: ‘psychographic’ profiles that could predict the personality and hidden political leanings of every American adult. ‘Of the two candidates left in the election, one of them is using these technologies,’ Mr. Nix said, referring to Donald J. Trump.” (Emphasis added)

As you continue to read, I want you to imagine an iceberg. Both Forbes and the New York Times thought they were being told, and telling us, the true story of Cambridge Analytica. But they and we saw only a small portion of what Cambridge Analytica wanted us to see.

In their effort to learn more about their work, the Times in March 2017 recounted a dispute about the effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica’s ‘psychographic’ analyses: “Cambridge Analytica’s rise has rattled some of President Trump’s critics and privacy advocates, who warn of a blizzard of high-tech, Facebook-optimized propaganda aimed at the American public, controlled by the people behind the alt-right hub Breitbart News. Cambridge is principally owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is Mr. Trump’s senior White House counselor, served until last summer as vice president of Cambridge’s board.

“But a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — ‘our secret sauce,’ Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated.

“Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign. The technology — prominently featured in the firm’s sales materials and in media reports that cast Cambridge as a master of the dark campaign arts — remains unproved, according to former employees and Republicans familiar with the firm’s work.”

So, if Cambridge Analytica’s psychographics didn’t do the job, what did? Let’s dig more deeply into the intersecting efforts of Jared Kushner and the Trump campaign and the Mercers and Cambridge Analytica.

One of the first efforts to explore the less visible aspects of this iceberg began in England, where Cambridge Analytica’s roots began with its parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories.

Mother Jones reports: “Before the 2016 presidential campaign, David Carroll, a media professor at New York’s Parsons School of Design, didn’t know much, if anything, about Cambridge Analytica … But that was before the election. And it was before, of course, it became clear that the firm … would help propel Donald Trump into the White House by cultivating vast troves of information on an untold number of American voters to craft controversial and highly targeted political messages …

“Paul-Olivier Dehaye, the co-founder of PersonalData.IO, a startup that helps individuals request their data from companies like Tinder, Uber, and Facebook, Carroll says, told him he suspected that Cambridge Analytica, with offices around the world, may have processed the data of American voters in 2016 in the UK. While the company’s tactics were a complete mystery, if that were true, Carroll, an American, could request what information it had on him as allowed by British data protection laws. So in early 2017, the two set out to pull back the curtain on the data tactics of Cambridge Analytica.

“Carroll’s quest started in February, when he formally requested his personal data from Cambridge Analytica, not knowing what, if anything, the company would give him. At that point, the practices of Cambridge Analytica and its connection to both Mercer and Bannon were only starting to come under the microscope – questions that have since expanded to include the company’s possible connection to Russia’s social-media meddling in the election and, more recently, its potential collaboration with Wikileaks. As the Daily Beast reported in late October, last year Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix offered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange assistance in the release of 33,000 of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails. (Recently Nix said, “We did not work with Russia in this election, and moreover we would never work with a third-party state actor in another country’s campaign.”) (Emphasis added.)

“Just a month after filing the initial request, Carroll, to his surprise, received a letter signed by a chairman of London-based “behavioral research and strategic communication” firm SCL, the parent company to Cambridge Analytica, with a file of his personal data, including a set of political predictions about Carroll made by the firm. It rated Carroll a ‘very unlikely Republican’ (this is true; Carroll voted for Democrats in the 2016 general and primary elections) and assigned him scores on various political issues: He scored a 3/10 on ‘gun importance,’ a 7/10 on ‘national security importance,’ and a 9/10 on ‘traditional social and moral values.’

“It turned out a wide expanse of personal information about Carroll’s behavior was being connected to his voter file and shared with ‘commercial entities,’ ‘research partners,’ ‘political campaigns,’ and other groups, according to the letter he received. ‘People were kind of terrified that this information was accurate,’ Carroll says. ‘People had a visceral reaction that their voter files aren’t being protected like they ought to be.’ While some of his followers said what he got was ‘typical data for the industry’ or ‘no big surprise,’ others called it ‘scary’ and ‘deeply disturbing.’

“But what was particularly problematic for Carroll was that, he believes, the profile the company sent him wasn’t nearly comprehensive. Nix and other Cambridge Analytica executives have boasted that the company has up to a startling 5,000 data points on each of the 230 million voters in the US. What Carroll received in March, according to his tweet at the time, was about 200 data points, and, even then, it wasn’t clear how or where the company got the data or who it was shared with, beyond the vague descriptions in the letter.

“What’s more, the response came from someone at a British company, SCL, which suggested to Carroll that his data, and presumably the rest of Americans’ data, was in fact processed in the UK, just as Dehaye thought. And if the data had been processed in the US, Carroll suggests, there would be little incentive for them to share it given the restrictive data laws in America. But according to the 1998 British Data Protection Act, any company that receives a personal data request is required to provide a ‘description of the personal data,’ state their purpose of processing it, and disclose any people and countries, outside Europe, the data were shared with. (Emphasis added.)

“A company that fails to comply with those standards, according to the law, is ‘guilty of an offense.’ ‘As soon as I posted [SCL’s response] to Twitter,’ Carroll says, ‘British academics started saying, ‘Hey, that’s illegal.’ Carroll argues that Cambridge Analytica failed to share the necessary information when he asked. To get the rest of his data – if there was in fact more, as Nix had bragged – Carroll would have to sue.

“The result of this case could blow the lid off how private data was used to shape votes and the outcome of 2016 election – and how it might be used in the future. As University of Maryland law professor and big data expert Frank Pasquale told the Guardian, ‘I think [this case] will be the model for other citizens’ actions against other big corporations. I think we will look back and see it as a really significant case in terms of the future of algorithmic accountability and data protection.’

As Mother Jones noted: “Cambridge Analytica opened its doors in 2013 and claims to use big data to predict human behavior and influence political elections, according to the company’s website. But what sets Cambridge Analytica apart from other data firms is that it claims to use what’s known as psychographics to build its voter profiles. Many political campaigns have used demographics (e.g., age, race, gender) to target political messaging, and President Obama successfully and famously used consumer data to target voters. But psychographics, in theory, go deeper, claiming to be able to predict a voter’s personality traits, such as how organized, extroverted, or quick to worry they are, by looking at a person’s online and consumer behavior. Cambridge Analytica is the only data firm, Republican or Democratic, that has publicly claimed to use psychographics in political campaigns. All this begs the question: How does Cambridge Analytica then connect up to 5,000 data points of consumer behavior with American voter files to build their profiles?”

Thanks to several recent whistle-blowers, Christopher Wylie, a data analyst, and Brittany Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica’s business development director, we’re beginning to understand what Cambridge Analytica really did.

Maybe you were one of the 270,000 people who were paid to take “thisisyourdigitallife,” a personality quiz that appeared on Facebook. What nobody told you was that the computer coding that controlled that app not only pulled out and exported all your answers and data, but did the same to all your Facebook friends and all the others you interacted with on Facebook. Thanks to this one particular app, the data of 270,000 users quickly multiplied into the data of 50 million Facebook users.

Brittany Kaiser, a Cambridge Analytica founder and whistleblower. Photo courtesy UK Guardian

The UK Guardian of March 17, 2018, reported that “Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: ‘We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.’”

As the Guardian explains, Cambridge Analytica “used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.”

As for Facebook, “Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals.”

So much for the notion that the Trump campaign’s digital operation had been brilliantly run by Jared Kushner and Brad Parscale, and had been based on data from the Republican National Committee.

As recently as Oct. 25, 2017, Natasha Bertrand of Business Insider was reporting that, even though the Trump campaign had paid Cambridge Analytica more than $5 million in the month of September 2017 alone, nonetheless they had played a minor role in their digital operation. She reported that “Michael S. Glassner, the executive director of Trump’s campaign, said in a statement on Wednesday — hours after The Daily Beast reported on the data firm’s outreach to Assange — that the only source of voter data that played a key role in Trump’s election victory was the Republican National Committee.

“Leading into the election, the RNC had invested in the most sophisticated data targeting program in modern American in history, which helped secure our victory in the fall,” the statement read. He added: “We were proud to have worked with the RNC and its data experts and relied on them as our main source for data analytics. We as a campaign made the choice to rely on the voter data of the Republican National Committee to help elect President Donald J. Trump. Any claims that voter data from any other source played a key role in the victory are false.”

Bertrand continued: “Brad Parscale, the digital director of the Trump campaign’s entire data operation, similarly downplayed Cambridge’s role in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. ‘I have said from the beginning this $5 million Cambridge invoice is mislabeled in the FEC reports,’ Parscale said.”

So it seems that these guys just couldn’t help themselves. Time and again they exaggerated what they themselves had done and downplayed and misrepresented what Cambridge Analytica had done. They lied, then lied some more.

The data pretty much came readymade. All these unwitting Facebook users had shared their thoughts and fears, their likes and dislikes, they posted photos of where they lived and where they worked and where they ate out and where they vacationed and, most importantly, they had expressed their political beliefs in many different ways and about so many different issues.

And so imagining they were contributing to an exciting and refreshingly contemporary version of the free marketplace of ideas, believing in some ways that they were participating in an exciting and authentic online community, they had created a treasure trove of unfiltered personal profiles just waiting to vacuumed up, sold and fed into massive databases to influence behavior.

Aleksandr Kogan, whose personality app made by his business Global Science Research, harvested personal data via Facebook. Photo courtesy University of California Berkeley

At the end of the day, there was no need for the academic hocus pocus of “psychographics” because it was all there, shared in excruciating detail by Facebook users who oh-so-willingly shared their personal stories with their friends. Detailed personal profiles repackaged and used by Cambridge Analytica, by Aleksandr Kogan, Cambridge Analytica’s Cambridge University academic, the Mercers and Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner and Donald Trump to create a powerful software program to influence political opinion, to target individuals with personalized propaganda.

Now, of course, this was never openly acknowledged. Not by Cambridge. Not by Kushner. Or Parscale. Not by Facebook.

Business Insider asks and answers some critical questions: “Was it legal? The data harvest, as described in the Observer, could have been illegal based on data protection law. British legislation forbids personal data to be sold to a third party without consent. Facebook has contested whether the information was really taken without consent. It said on Saturday: ‘People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.’ Also, Kogan could have broken Facebook’s own rules by using the data for commercial rather than strictly academic purposes.

“Facebook said it removed the Cambridge Analytica quiz app from the platform in 2015 and demanded that Kogan, Wylie, and Cambridge Analytica confirm that they had deleted all the data harvested. Wylie, however, claimed that Facebook only demanded that he remove all the Facebook data in August 2016, and they were small steps. He said: ‘They [Facebook] waited two years and did absolutely nothing to check that the data was deleted. All they asked me to do was tick a box on a form and post it back.’ 

“The latest revelations also suggest that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica both misled lawmakers about their actions. Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, previously denied working with Kogan as well as using Facebook data. ‘We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data,’ Nix told British MPs last month, as cited by The Observer. Facebook has also denied that it gave Cambridge Analytica data. 

“Simon Milner, the company’s UK director of policy, told British MPs last month: ‘They [Cambridge Analytica] may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.’ Facebook has since suspended Cambridge Analytica, its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories, and Wylie from its platform. Wylie was also suspended from WhatsApp and Instagram, which are both owned by Facebook, the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr reported.

Business Insider asks and attempts to answer the very important question: “Is Russia involved?” Possibly. Wylie’s testimony has revealed a Russian connection to Cambridge Analytica and Kogan. According to Wylie, Cambridge Analytica in 2014 made a pitch to Russian oil and gas company Lukoil, which was and remains sanctioned by the U.S. The company was interested in understanding the link among data, behavioural micro-targeting and political campaigns, and met Cambridge Analytica at least three times between 2014 and 2015, the New York Times reported.

Wylie told The Observer: ‘It didn’t make any sense to me … Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?’ Kogan, the Cambridge academic, had also been an associate professor at St Petersburg State University and received Russian government grants while creating and harvesting Facebook data through the app, The Observer reported.

“Curiously, Kogan’s work in Russia was never publicised, and colleagues told The Observer ‘no one knew’ about it. Cambridge University said it was carried out in a ‘private capacity.’ (Emphasis added.)

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal reported on a Russian effort that describes an effort to harvest data similar to what Cambridge Analytica did. Remember those Russians working at the Internet Research Agency creating false organizations and pretending to be Americans: “Russian operators, using social media including Facebook, asked for and got personal information from ordinary Americans as part of their political influence campaign.

“All the Facebook account Black4Black asked for was some personal information about Ajah Hales and other Cleveland-area small-business owners. In exchange, she was told her cosmetics company, and her fellow African-American entrepreneurs, would receive free promotion on social media and in a new and influential directory of black-owned businesses. Ms. Hales soon turned over basic information about her company, as well as names, phone numbers, email addresses and websites of dozens of black business owners in and around Cleveland.

“That was in early 2017. It wasn’t until recently, after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal, that Ms. Hales would learn that Black4Black and ‘partner’ groups, including BlackMattersUS, were among hundreds of Facebook and Instagram accounts set up by a pro-Kremlin propaganda agency to meddle in American politics, Facebook records show.

Officers working for the UK Information Commissioner’s Office raid Cambridge Analytica’s offices in London. Photo: Yui Mok/PA

“The fake directory is one example of the elaborate schemes that Russian ‘trolls’ have pursued to try to collect personal and business information from Americans, the Journal has found. Leveraging social media, Russians have collected data by peddling niche business directories, convincing activists to sign petitions and bankrolling self-defense training classes in return for student information.”

We know that Devin Nunes and the Republicans who control the House Intelligence Committee have decided there’s no need to investigate any further. So it’s safe to say they won’t be asking or demanding anyone from Cambridge Analytica or the Mercers or Steve Bannon or from Facebook to testify and answer questions that have recently risen to the surface.

But thankfully there is Special Counsel Robert Mueller who seems not to be so easily satisfied. Bertrand, at the close of last year, reported: “Special counsel Robert Mueller has begun to question Republican National Committee staffers about the party’s 2016 campaign data operation, which helped President Donald Trump’s campaign team target voters in critical swing states.

“It is not surprising that federal investigators have begun to examine the possibility that Russia and the Trump campaign helped each other during the election. Investigators have been looking into whether Russia provided the campaign with voter information stolen by Russian hackers from election databases in several states, and whether the Trump campaign helped Russia target its political ads to specific demographics and voting precincts. The general counsels for Facebook, Twitter, and Google gave enigmatic replies when asked by the House Intelligence Committee last month whether they had investigated ‘who was mimicking who’ when it came to online ads promoted by both the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

“Facebook said in September that about 25% of the ads purchased by Russians during the election ‘were geographically targeted,’ though many analysts have said they find it difficult to believe that foreign entities would have had the kind of granular knowledge of American politics necessary to target specific demographics and voting precincts.

“Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch paused before indicating that the committee had access to intelligence that could better contextualize the information Facebook had turned over. Two sources told Yahoo News that Mueller’s team is examining whether the joint RNC-Trump campaign data operation — which was directed on Trump’s side by Brad Parscale and managed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — ‘was related to the activities of Russian trolls and bots aimed at influencing the American electorate.’ Mueller is reportedly zeroing in on the Trump campaign’s data operation — and the RNC.”

I hope this sets the stage. Next time, much more about what else Cambridge Analytica did. And what were Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort and John Bolton doing with Cambridge Analytica? And has Cambridge Analytica not only violated the law in the U.K., but in Canada and the U.S.?

How did Facebook help the Trump campaign best use its data? Why was it that Donald J. Trump For President and Trump Make America Great Again spent $90 million on services provided by Giles-Parscale, a small San Antonio website development and marketing firm? Round Two.




Grand Jury Indicts Thirteen Russian Individuals and Three Russian Companies for Scheme to Interfere in the United States Political System, Feb. 16, 2018

“About That Russia Indictment: Robert Mueller’s Legal Theory and Where It Takes Him Next”
Emma Kohse, Benjamin Wittes, March 7, 2018

“How Jared Kushner Won Trump The White House”
Steven Betoni, Nov. 22, 2016, Forbes
https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenbertoni/2016/11/22/exclusive-interview-how-jared-kushner-won-trump-the-white-house/ – 3820652e3af6

“Bold Promises Fade to Doubts for a Trump-Linked Data Firm”
Nicholas Confessor and Danny Hakin, March 6, 2017, the New York Times

“A Groundbreaking Case May Force Controversial Data Firm Cambridge Analytica to Reveal Trump Secrets”
Jackie Flynn Mogensen, Dec. 19, 2017, Mother Jones

Data Protection Act 1998

“Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach”
Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, Match 17, 2018, UK Guardian

“Everyone is talking about Cambridge Analytica, the Trump-linked data firm that harvested 50 million Facebook profiles — here’s what’s going on”
Alexandra Ma, March 19, 2018, Business Insider

“Russian Influence Campaign Extracted Americans’ Personal Data”
Shelby Holliday and Rob Barry, March 7, 2018, Wall Street Journal

“Mueller is reportedly zeroing in on the Trump campaign’s data operation — and the RNC”
Natasha Bertrand, Dec. 27, 2017, Business Insider

“The Trump campaign is scrambling to distance itself from Cambridge Analytica amid Assange-Hillary Clinton email flap”
Natasha Bertrand, Oct. 25, 2017, Business Insider


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