It was too big a coincidence. EU, Vote Leave — denied it. There was nothing to disprove this. We published the known facts. On 29 March, article 50 was triggered. Then I meet Paul, the first of two sources formerly employed by Cambridge Analytica. He is in his late 20s and bears mental scars from his time there. It was so… messed up. It happened so fast. He laughed when I told him the frustrating mystery that was AggregateIQ. They built our software for us. They held our database. You need to find Chris Wylie.
Key to understanding how data would transform the company is knowing where it came from. A weird British corner of it populated, as the military establishment in Britain is, by old-school Tories. Steve Tatham was the head of psychological operations for British forces in Afghanistan. And, now, too, the American defence establishment. This is not just a story about social psychology and data analytics.
It has to be understood in terms of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. Paul and David, another ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, were working at the firm when it introduced mass data-harvesting to its psychological warfare techniques. And it was Facebook that made it possible. It was from Facebook that Cambridge Analytica obtained its vast dataset in the first place. And he did so by paying people to take a personality quiz which also allowed not just their own Facebook profiles to be harvested, but also those of their friends — a process then allowed by the social network.
Facebook was the source of the psychological insights that enabled Cambridge Analytica to target individuals. It was also the mechanism that enabled them to be delivered on a large scale. The company also perfectly legally bought consumer datasets — on everything from magazine subscriptions to airline travel — and uniquely it appended these with the psych data to voter files. The key is finding emotional triggers for each individual voter. Cambridge Analytica worked on campaigns in several key states for a Republican political action committee.
It has previously been claimed that suppression tactics were used in the campaign, but this document provides the first actual evidence. But does it actually work? Is what it is doing any different from any other political consultancy? Robert Mercer did not invest in this firm until it ran a bunch of pilots — controlled trials. This is one of the smartest computer scientists in the world. Tamsin Shaw, an associate professor of philosophy at New York University, helps me understand the context.
To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of international plutocrats to do with it what they will is absolutely chilling.
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A project that Cambridge Analytica carried out in Trinidad in brings all the elements in this story together. The brief involved developing a micro-targeting programme for the governing party of the time. And AggregateIQ — the same company involved in delivering Brexit for Vote Leave — was brought in to build the targeting platform. And this pays for the political work. The security work was to be the prize for the political work.
It was pre-crime. These documents throw light on a significant and under-reported aspect of the Trump administration. The company that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department.
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Its former vice-president Steve Bannon now sits in the White House. In the US, the government is bound by strict laws about what data it can collect on individuals. But, for private companies anything goes. Is it unreasonable to see in this the possible beginnings of an authoritarian surveillance state?
A state that is bringing corporate interests into the heart of the administration. Documents detail Cambridge Analytica is involved with many other right-leaning billionaires, including Rupert Murdoch. It makes me think again about the story involving the intern, Cambridge Analytica and Palantir. Is it a telling detail, or is it a clue to something else going on?
Cambridge Analytica and Palantir both declined to comment for this article on whether they had any relationship. But witnesses and emails confirm that meetings between Cambridge Analytica and Palantir took place in The possibility of a working relationship was at least discussed. Further documents seen by the Observer confirm that at least one senior Palantir employee consulted with Cambridge Analytica in relation to the Trinidad project and later political work in the US.
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There was no upside to it. Now though, they are both owned by ideologically aligned billionaires: Robert Mercer and Peter Thiel. The Trump campaign has said that Thiel helped it with data. A campaign that was led by Steve Bannon, who was then at Cambridge Analytica. A leading QC who spends a lot of time in the investigatory powers tribunal said that the problem with this technology was that it all depended on whose hands it was in.
But then the same expertise can also be sold on to whichever repressive regime. In Britain, we still trust our government. We respect our authorities to uphold our laws. We trust the rule of law. We believe we live in a free and fair democracy. Which is what, I believe, makes the last part of this story so profoundly unsettling. The details of the Trinidad project finally unlocked the mystery that was AggregateIQ. It was the model that Mercer was buying into. And it brought together all the players: the Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, AggregateIQ, Chris Wylie, and two other individuals who would play a role in this story: Mark Gettleson, a focus group expert who had previously worked for the Lib Dems.
When my article linking Mercer and Leave. EU was published in February , no one was more upset about it than former Tory adviser Dominic Cummings, the campaign strategist for Vote Leave. He launched an irate Twitter tirade. Questions had already been swirling about whether there had been any coordination between the Leave campaigns. A source close to the investigation said that AggregateIQ responded by saying it had signed a non-disclosure agreement. And since it was outside British jurisdiction, that was the end of it.
On his blog, Dominic Cummings has written thousands of words about the referendum campaign.
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What is missing is any details about his data scientists. Finally, after weeks of messages, he sent me an email. We were agreed on one thing, it turned out. There is no press coverage. No random mentions. I have caught Dominic Cummings in what appears to be an alternative fact. This story may involve a complex web of connections, but it all comes back to Cambridge Analytica. It all comes back to Mercer. Because the connections must have been evident. During the whole time the referendum was going on, they were working every day on the [Ted] Cruz campaign with Mercer and Cambridge Analytica.
But invoices lodged with the Electoral Commission show payments to a company called Advanced Skills Institute. It takes me weeks to spot the significance of this because the company is usually referred to as ASI Data Science, a company that has a revolving cast of data scientists who have gone on to work with Cambridge Analytica and vice versa.