Cambridge Analytica: What, When, How, Why

In early 2013, Canadian data scientist Christopher Wylie pitched an idea to his boss, Steve Bannon, for a company that would change how political campaigns use data to change minds. The two men secured funding for their project from Republican billionaire donor Robert Mercer and, excited by their idea’s potential, set about founding and building a company called Cambridge Analytica. Wylie turned whistleblower and told this story to a British newspaper in March of 2018.

Like many things to do with the alt-right, the elevator pitch for Cambridge Analytica sounds harmless: the company would gather and analyze social media profile data to better target events and news stories to eligible voters in the US presidential election, in the British EU membership referendum, and in any other election a paying campaign wanted to win. Using Wylie’s innovative data mining and analysis techniques, the company would offer better targeting and stronger results for its campaigns.

But, like everything having to do with the alt-right, there was a lot more to it.

Preying on Fear in the West

Cambridge Analytica hit the ground running. Between June and August 2014, the company harvested data from around 50 million Facebook profiles using a methodology that involved pulling data from friends of people who took a personality test set up by a Russian academic. Per British newspaper The Guardian:

The data was collected through an app called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan, separately from his work at Cambridge University. Through his company Global Science Research (GSR), in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, hundreds of thousands of users were paid to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use.

However, the app also collected the information of the test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong. Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising.

Having access to such rich data allowed Cambridge Analytica to, as one of the firm’s managing directors put it in a video filmed undercover by a team from Britain’s Channel Four News program, “drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.” He added: “It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion, it’s all about emotion.”

“Information Warfare”

Once the company built profiles of voters using their Facebook data, they set to work on behalf of the Trump and pro-Brexit campaigns. They created and disseminated fake news stories designed to prey on people’s deepest fears and concerns. In videos secretly filmed by Channel Four, the company’s CEO Alexander Nix boasted about all of the shady tactics his firm could set loose on both the people it has profiled and the leaders they follow. 


These tactics were summed up by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as “information warfare.” In an indictment for several companies and people associated with Russian troll farms, the Special Counsel said that groups using unbranded memes, fake news stories, and videos, “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

How deeply their actions influenced the presidential election and Brexit referendum in 2016 is currently an open question – but it’s one that both America and the United Kingdom have a vested interest in asking.

Russian Influence, Western Consequence

There are multiple lines of evidence that connect Cambridge Analytica to Russian influence, elevating this from being a question of morals and privacy to being a question of national security. Additional revelations suggesting that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Global, had high-level contractor access to the British Ministry of Defence and the US State Department have raised the stakes even higher.

Within days of Wylie’s story being published in the British press, the British Parliament and parts of the U.S. Congress had called for representatives from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook to appear before them to answer questions.

Facebook has taken a pummelling from the developing news stories (including news that its employees shared office space with Cambridge Analytica in San Antonio during the Trump campaign), with its stock tumbling rapidly while its executives remain silent. For its part, Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO and continues to protest its innocence.

We Can Help Take Them Down

There’s no question that Cambridge Analytica and the companies that supported it in its work deserve to face transparent justice. The West needs to thoroughly investigate the extent of the company’s undue influence over critical, history-making elections held throughout 2016. With both of its senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee, California residents have outsized power to make sure this happens.

 

Image courtesy of rawpixel via Pixabay.

Use the Force for Good, Senator Harris

Trying to keep track of America’s current government is like playing a Kafkaesque game of whack-a-mole where you wear a blindfold while news anchors give you instructions on where the moles are in a different language several hours ago.

One persistent mole is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When it’s not very publicly tearing families apart, detaining people without due process, or targeting individuals who pose no threat, this militarized arm of the Trump administration spends its time quietly watching our Congress enact legislation that strengthens it and expands its powers ever further.

To our great disappointment, our own Senator Kamala Harris, a member of the authorizing committee for the Department of Homeland Security and ICE (Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, or HSGAC), has failed to use her position to halt the spread of ICE’s power, authority and funding. She has raised no opposition to ICE’s intent to spend $100 million on software that will allow for “automatic extreme vetting” – technology that will give it the capacity to digitally profile visitors and immigrants, which is inaccurate and biased and endangers civil liberties. And on March 7, 2018 – more than seven months after her committee received the DHS reauthorization bill that, among other things gives DHS the power to ask for more funding for ICE – she signed off on the bill without protest.

While we applaud Senator Harris’ strong public stance against ICE, we are disappointed that she has not taken any of the opportunities presented to her as a member of HSGAC to call attention to the need for greater scrutiny of this controversial agency or to seek to amend the reauthorization bill to address the numerous allegations about ICE’s abuses.

It’s vital that we continue to press our Members of Congress to hold ICE accountable and stand up to its persistent attempts to infringe on our rights. Here’s where you can help:

Contact Senator Harris. Let her know you’re keeping track of ICE and her responses to ICE, no matter how few headlines the stories get, and tell her you’re disappointed that she has not used the occasions she had to speak out against ICE’s grab for power and money. What to say:

My name is  _______ and my zip code is _________. I am a member of Indivisible East Bay. I want to thank Senator Harris for her statements about ICE ‘s abuses of power, but I am concerned that she voted in the Homeland Security Committee to send a bill authorizing the agency to the Senate floor. I want her to use her position on this Committee as an opportunity to push for reform of ICE and to force the agency to be more responsive to Congressional oversight.

Sen. Kamala Harris: (email); (415) 355-9041 • DC: (202) 224-3553

Be informed and inform others. Support and connect with your local ICE rapid response networks. Make sure you and your neighbors know what to do if you see ICE. Remember: respond with power, not panic. Download ACLU NorCal’s Mobile Justice app to make sure you’re ready to record ICE overreach if it happens in your neighborhood.

Image via TryJimmy licensed under Creative Commons.

Power, Not Panic: What To Do If You See ICE

The Trump administration is making no secret of its intention to persecute California’s undocumented immigrants. Despite recent legislation barring authorities from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the state, rumblings from D.C. coupled with recent egregious acts of overreach by ICE in California make it clear that these agents present a growing threat to our communities. Whether we’re immigrants, allies, or community members who care, we need to prepare ourselves to respond to raids and checkpoints wherever we find them. Below is a list of resources and training that you can use to be as ready as possible to hold ICE to account in our state.

How to Respond to ICE

Remember these key words: Power, not panic. Those words will help you find the website of the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, which has a treasure trove of info on protecting yourself and your community against ICE and fighting misinformation.

Keep in mind:

  • First and foremost: Know your rights. Know whether or not you are safe from ICE, and to what extent your immigration status, if any, would be impacted by an arrest.
  • Learn about ICE and how it operates.
  • If you see ICE on the street, take steps to confirm with others that you saw them. Spreading panic helps no one, and could traumatize children and families already living in fear.
    • Once ICE presence is confirmed, call your local Rapid Response network hotline. Use the hotlines only to report ICE activity and enforcement actions; website links are also given to make informational inquiries.
    • Document what you see ICE doing. We recommend downloading the ACLU’s free Mobile Justice – CA app, which automatically uploads video  from your smartphone to the ACLU Northern California office. This keeps the footage safe if enforcement officials try to delete it or confiscate your phone.
  • If ICE comes to your homeyou don’t have to let them in unless they show you a warrant. They will sometimes wave bits of paper that aren’t warrants around and say that they are warrants; they can and will bend the law to gain entrance to your home.
    • If you are arrested, remain silent, and ask to speak to a lawyer.
    • The ACLU has precise instructions on how to handle an ICE raid on your home in Spanish and in English.

Want to help? Volunteer or otherwise support your local Rapid Response Network:

Graphic © California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance 

Digital Security in the Age of Trump

The success of Indivisible and Indivisible East Bay depends on people being able to feel safe in order to participate as much as they want. We believe we’re all stronger the broader our movement, and that breadth requires that people from all walks of life be able to play a role and feel safe doing so.

We know that the US government and internet companies have technology to listen in on our phone calls, read our email and text messages, see what we search for online, record and analyze what we “like” on Social Media, and surveil many other aspects of our growing digital lives. It’s safe to say the new Administration will continue to make use of these tools. Also, municipal police departments are availing themselves of this technology, including SF and Oakland PDs, such as technologies to capture phone numbers of cell phones carried by people who are present at a demonstration.

In order to enhance everyone’s digital security, we would like to propose that people follow the guidelines below.

Ensuring digital safety

As with everything related to security, nothing can prevent a committed intruder, especially a State actor, from hacking into your digital lives. However, there are lots of things you can do that can keep most hackers out, keep you under the radar, and make life difficult for a particularly committed actor.

Some of these measures might be as simple as not bringing your smartphone with you to an event; collecting all phones from people at a meeting and placing them out of earshot and out of view of the meeting; using Signal instead of your regular texting app; using a password manager; activating two factor authorization on your accounts. Think of these as different slices of Swiss cheese stacked in front of one another: any single slice will have holes that one can get through. But, enough of them stacked together will form a more thorough barrier.

For basic digital safety there are several areas where you can take action:

Description Ease of setup and use Setup time
1 Good password hygiene, much aided by using a password manager, like 1Password and LastPass. A little time-consuming to set up; once set up, your digital life will be much, much easier to manage. Depends on how many accounts you have.
2 Enable 2FA (two-factor authentication) with all your accounts. Easy to setup and use. Maybe 5 min per acct that has this as an option.
3 Encrypt your hard drive. Easy to setup and easy to use. 5 min
4 Use a passcode protect your devices. Easy to setup, easy to use. 5 min
5 Keep your operating systems up to date. Easy to do. 5-10 min, periodically
6 Use an encrypted messaging app, like Signal. Easy to setup and easy to use. You’ll need to get your correspondents to use it. 5 min
7 Cover your browsing tracks. Easy to set up (download the TOR browser). Easy to use, but with some performance hits (slower). 15 min to download and install, depending on your internet connection.
8 Use fully-encrypted email. Harder to setup, but once in place easy to use. 30-60 min.

Additional resources

If you’d like read more on this topic, check out our new Digital Security Resources page. The provided materials go into further detail on risks and what you can do to make yourself safe.

Step-by-step instructions on how to do ALL of the above and more can be found on the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense website.

Among the best, most comprehensive and user-friendly guides out there, the EFF’s guide is written by the folks who care about civil rights in the technological age. It gives high level rationale for why this is important, and an overview of many specific à la carte solutions, how hard they are to implement, and what they’ll do. We recommend that you read this slideshow which presents the same material.

Our friends over at Indivisible Austin have posted a number of practical guides regarding digital security. Worth the bookmark.

Addendum: Digital Security as an Act of Solidarity

Government surveillance is nothing new. It’s well known that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was surveilled by the FBI, not to mention generations of African-Americans before and after him. And today, BLM activists, DAPL activists, and many Americans who practice the Muslim faith, are being monitored by local, State and Federal authorities.

If we think we’re not being surveilled by the government, we may find ourselves communicating with friends or family members who are, or who may potentially be, monitored. When many of us say, “I have nothing to hide,” we’re reflecting a mindset that is rooted in privilege, that doesn’t take into account the possible vulnerability of the person we’re communicating with electronically.

One way to support our marginalized correspondents (and challenge our privilege) is to use a more secure means of communicating with them. In addition to normalizing the use of these tools and helping others protect themselves, we will have a taste of what it’s like to take measures against unwarranted surveillance. Today, for many still, to employ digital security is act of solidarity; for others, it has become an act of necessity.