“The world’s most valuable resource,” noted The Economist in 2017, “is no longer oil, but data.” According to the same publication, in 2019 “big firms spent $32bn … on cloud services” – “cloud services” being where our data are stored.1
Three books, all published in 2019, tell you more about data than you ever thought you wanted to know.
Edward Snowden, Permanent Record.
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019. 352 pages.
Permanent Record is about Edward Snowden’s short but memorable career in American intelligence. He was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in 1983. He was a member, he says, of the “last undigitized generation, whose childhoods aren’t up on the cloud but are mostly trapped in analog formats like handwritten diaries and Polaroids and VHS cassettes, tangible and imperfect artifacts that degrade with age and can be lost irretrievably.”
His was also the first generation to be raised with, if not by, computers. His parents seem serious and devoted, descended on both sides from a long line of Navy personnel. Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden makes its subject appear right-wing, at least in contrast with his girlfriend (now wife) who drags him to an Iraq war protest. In the book, Snowden and his parents seem patriotic in a “good citizenship” way. They don’t have strongly partisan views. Snowden joins the Marines, and later the CIA, to contribute to his country.
He tells an interesting anecdote that conveys, I think, the family’s politics. His mother loved giving him math challenges. She’d buy him books and toys if he could mentally total their prices. He had to add in the 3 per cent sales tax.
“Everything we buy, we have to pay three percent to the government.”
“What do they do with it?”
“You like roads, buddy? You like bridges? … The government uses that money to fix them. They use that money to fill the library with books.”
Some time later, she told him,
“They raised the sales tax. Now you have to add four percent.”
“So now the library will get even more books?”
One day, his father brought home a computer. Soon afterward, he could “dial up and connect to something new called the Internet”:
Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably altered the course of my life … From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online … Gradually, I stopped sleeping at night and instead slept by day in school. My grades went back into free fall.
Snowden and education never got along, and eventually he found work using his computer talents. Then there was a news report “about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center,” and then “a second plane just hit the other tower.” Snowden writes that he “accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts … I wanted to be a liberator. I wanted to free the oppressed.” He thought he could best serve his country “behind a terminal, but a normal IT job seemed too comfortable and safe.” He wanted to work with the CIA or the National Security Agency (NSA), but he didn’t have the educational qualifications:
The more I read around online, however, the more I realized that the post-9/11 world was a world of exceptions. The agencies were growing so much and so quickly, especially on the technical side, that they’d sometimes waive the degree requirements for military veterans.
He joined the Army. That ended poorly, with multiple fractures in his legs and “administrative separation … only available to enlistees who’d been in the services fewer than six months.” He decided to follow the inevitable, by putting his computer skills to use for the government. After 9/11, they were desperate for people with computer skills. But by this time, the structure of government service had changed:
I was amazed to find that there were very few opportunities to serve my country directly, at least in a meaningful technical role. I had a better chance of working as a contractor for a private company that served my country for profit; and I had the best chance, it turned out, of working as a subcontractor for a private company that contracted with another private company that served my country for profit.
Snowden rose rapidly through the ranks. His job was to “make it technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the world’s digital communications, store them for ages, and search through them at will.” But gathering and storing data on U.S. citizens was illegal, and high government officials and top politicians were lying about it. In early June 2013, while hiding out in a Hong Kong hotel, he went public. He was not yet 30 years old.
The U.S. cancelled Snowden’s passport while he was in transit through Russia. I was relieved to read that a year later his wife joined him. They’ve been there ever since.
It’s easy to admire Snowden; he was cautious and disciplined. Without mentioning names, he distinguishes himself from Julian Assange: “I disclosed the government’s documents only to journalists. In fact, the number of documents that I disclosed directly to the public is zero. I believe, just as those journalists believe, that a government may keep some information concealed.”
Snowden was heroic, but I have to admit I’m not as outraged by his government’s behaviour as he is. I oppose it in principle, but I don’t feel threatened by it. As the cliché goes, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” On the other hand, Christopher Wylie’s Mindf*ck (sic) scared the shit out of me.
Christopher Wylie, Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America.
New York: Random House, 2019. 288 pages.
From undermining fanatics to organizing fanatics
Christopher Wylie was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1989. His parents were doctors. He spent his high school years in a wheelchair as a result of two relatively rare conditions: “Not long after I discovered the computer lab, it became the one room at school where I didn’t feel alienated. Outside, there were either bullies or patronizing staff.”
It was liberating to find my voice. Like any teenager, I was exploring who I was, but for someone gay and in a wheelchair, this was an even bigger challenge … I began to realize that many of the things I was living through were not simply personal issues – they were also political issues. My challenges were political. My life was political. My mere existence was political .
He was brought to the attention of a local Liberal MP and offered a job in Ottawa. But first he spent
the summer of 2007 in Montréal, hanging out in hacker spaces frequented by French Canadian techno-anarchists … By then, with treatment, I could shuffle around without a wheelchair … Most hackers couldn’t care less what you look like or if you walk funny. They share your love of the craft and want to help you get better at it … My brief exposure to hacking communities left a permanent impression. You learn that no system is absolute. Nothing is impenetrable, and barriers are a dare.
When he arrived in Ottawa, Facebook was big and Twitter was growing, but no one in the Liberal Party knew what to do with them. The Liberals sent several people, including Wylie, to observe Barack Obama’s campaign. He was expecting to learn new media, like YouTube; instead he learned about data and “the modeling they used to analyze and understand that data.” He learned that “it was those numbers – and the predictive algorithms they created – that separated Obama from anyone who had ever run for president before.” With data on “age, gender, income, race, homeownership – even magazine subscriptions and airline miles” – you could predict whom people would vote for and what issues were most important to them, and craft messages that might sway their opinions:
For me, this was a wholly new way of understanding elections. Data was a force for good, powering this campaign of change. It was being used to produce first-time voters, to reach people who felt left out. The deeper I got into it, the more I thought that data would be the savior of politics.
He was eager to share what he’d learned. He had his supporters but, in the end, the Liberal Party of Canada didn’t want to spend the money on something they didn’t quite understand. Soon afterward, “The LPC was devastated in the federal election by the Conservative Party of Canada, which had invested in sophisticated data systems at the behest of its imported Republican advisers.”
In 2010, at age 21, Wylie left politics for law school at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He “flourished in London and soon gained a wide circle of friends.” He was soon tempted by an offer from the U.K. Liberal Democrats. It was the the only party to oppose the war in Iraq, he notes, but it was a poster on their office wall that finally lured him in: “No one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” It all makes for a very funny story – unless you’re a Liberal Democrat. Wylie provided an extensive and devastating report, and the party elected to shoot the messenger. In 2015, “the party was eviscerated, losing forty-nine of its fifty-seven seats in Parliament.”
He was ready for something new. A Lib Dem connection had suggested Wylie apply for a job with SCL Group, because SCL was “looking for ‘data people for some behavior research project’ involving the military.” After several interviews, Alexander Nix, an SCL director, “offered me a three-month contract to do, essentially, whatever I wanted … After all the agonies of dealing with the LPC and the Lib Dems, it was incredibly enticing to be given free rein.” In June 2013, he started at SCL.
Meanwhile, Wylie had started a PhD in fashion at University of the Arts London. Nix agreed to cover his tuition. SCL had contracts with the British and U.S. military. Wylie’s days alternated between “fashion models and cyberwarfare,” but it was models of another kind, “neural networks, computer vision, and autoencoders,” that attracted him:
At SCL we would watch countless numbers of radical jihadist propaganda videos, and we noticed that, beyond the violence of the clips that make it onto the news, there was a rich and well-articulated aesthetic to their style of content. Cool cars were showcased. There would be music … They tried to position their backward ideology as somehow modern or futuristic in a way that echoed the old Italian Futurists’ promotion of a fascism for tomorrow … These films were propagating a grotesque cult of violence and hate … Their style was self-indulgent and naively romantic, and it bordered on kitsch. Even terrorists have pop culture.
Around this time, in September 2013, I distinctly remember thinking, How cool is this? I get to work in culture, but not just for someone’s branding campaign. I get to work in culture for the defense of our democracy.
SCL was trying to undermine extremist movements. If you could get enough information on their members, you could sow discord: “The most susceptible targets are typically the ones who exhibit neurotic or narcissistic traits … because they are more prone to feelings of envy and entitlement, which are strong motivators of rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying behavior.” To find the most susceptible targets, you needed a great deal of data, more than you could sort manually. So you also needed algorithms to analyze the data. That’s what they did at SCL: gather truckloads of data and analyze it. They did it for military security; and then they did it for anyone who had the money to pay for it.
In Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s film The Great Hack, SCL CEO Alexander Nix is shown pitching the company by describing its work in Trinidad and Tobago:
There are two main political parties, one for the Blacks, one for the Indians. And they screw each other. So, we were working for the Indians, and we went to the client and we said we want to target the youth. And we try and increase apathy. The campaign has to be non-political, cause the kids don’t care about politics. It has to be reactive, cause they’re lazy. So we came up with this campaign which was all about “be part of the gang,” “do something cool,” “be part of a movement,” and it was called the “DO SO!” campaign. “Do so! Don’t vote!” … It’s a sign of resistance against, not the government but against politics and voting. We knew that when it came to voting, all the Afro-Caribbean kids wouldn’t vote because they “Do so!” but all the Indian kids would do what their parents told them to do, which was to go out and vote … Now the difference in 18- to 35-year-old turnout was like 40 per cent. And that swung the election about 6 per cent, which is all that’s needed in an election that’s very close.2
It was a young field and Wylie’s task was to develop it by gaining access to new sources of data and writing new algorithms to analyze them: “One unintended consequence of having large pluralities of citizens connected via mobile phone networks was that everybody could be traced, tracked, profiled, and communicated with.” There were “data brokers such as Experian, Acxiom, and niche firms with specialist lists from evangelical churches, media companies, and so on. Even some state governments will sell you lists of hunting, fishing, or gun licensees.”
A great deal of data came from Facebook, which used the data it gathered to sell targeted advertising but didn’t seem to care much who else used it and what they used it for. And when you joined Facebook, you gave them permission to access all your friends’ data too. Eventually SCL had information on hundreds of millions of people, and once they had 5,000 bits of information on you (everything you clicked or liked, every email you sent or YouTube you watched, every Google search you searched), so the claim went, they knew you better than you knew yourself.
The algorithms were about profiling. They’d categorize personality by:
ratings on five scales: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism … This sounds simple, but the Big Five model can be an immensely useful tool in predicting voters’ behavior … Obama ran on change, hope, and progress – in other words, a platform of openness to new ideas. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to focus on stability, independence, and tradition – in effect, a platform of conscientiousness.
Each of the Big Five traits are found in pretty much everyone. There’s also a:
“dark triad” of traits – narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (ruthless self-interest), and psychopathy (emotional detachment) – that are less common and maladaptive, meaning that those who exhibit them are generally more prone to anti-social behavior, including criminal acts.
In October 2013, Steve Bannon arrived at SCL, with truckloads of money provided by eccentric right-wing backers. When he first met Bannon, Wylie writes,
We talked for four hours – not only about politics but about fashion and culture, Foucault, the third-wave feminist Judith Butler, and the nature of the fractured self. On the surface, Bannon seemed utterly predictable – another old, straight white guy – but he spoke with a certain wokeness I hadn’t expected at all. In fact, I quickly decided he was kind of cool … He was no political hack, but a fellow nerd given permission to speak freely.
When Wylie joined SCL, he believed that data collection and profiling were being used for positive ends, to search out fanatics and prevent acts of terrorism. That changed soon after Bannon’s arrival and the creation of a new SCL subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica. CA continued to search out fanatics, but for different purposes. Bannon was out to organize fanatics. CA would create new Facebook pages “with vague names like County Patriots or I Love My Country.” As people joined these groups, CA would post videos and articles:
Conversations would rage on the group page, with people commiserating about how terrible or unfair something was. CA broke down social barriers, cultivating relationships across groups. All the while it was testing and refining messages …
Once a group reached a certain number of members, CA would set up a physical event. CA teams would choose small venues – a coffee shop or bar to make the crowd feel larger … People would show up and find a fellowship of anger and paranoia. This naturally led them to feel like they were part of a giant movement, and it allowed them to further feed off one another’s paranoia and fear of conspiracy. … The meetings took place in counties all across the United States, starting with the early Republican primary states, and people would get more and more fired up at what they saw as “us vs. them.” What began as their digital fantasy, sitting alone in their bedrooms late at night clicking on links, was becoming their new reality.
That’s one example of what you could do with a lot of data and the ability to select the people you want. But data and technical ability weren’t enough. Wylie describes CA’s work for the Leave side in the Brexit campaign:
The problem with Remain was that they completely failed to understand what they were up against. As Cambridge Analytica identified, provoking anger and indignation reduced the need for full rational explanations immunize target voters to the notion that the economy would suffer. neglected to stop and ask people what they thought the economy was in the first place. Cambridge Analytica identified that many people in non-urban regions or in lower socioeconomic strata often externalized the notion of “the economy” to something that only the wealthy and metropolitan elite participated in. “The economy” was not their job in a local store; it’s something that bankers did.
Pro-Brexit leaders knew that to win they would need to attract a few progressive voters:
One of the most compelling progressive arguments for Brexit was pretty simple … Under EU rules, migrants to Britain from countries like France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Austria did not need a visa to work and live in Britain. But migrants from, say, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Jamaica were required to undergo extensive screening and difficult immigration procedures … As the Remain campaign paraded around its “pro-immigration” messages to defend the EU, what many people of color saw was the tacit whiteness of that very message – that it really meant rights for some immigrants … And it was by identifying this bubbling resentment that the pro-Brexit movement managed to create a counterintuitive alliance between some sections of immigrant communities and cohorts of jingoist Brexiteers who wanted them all to “go home” .
One more example:
In August 2016, the football player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the American national anthem to protest systemic racism and police brutality toward African Americans and other minorities in the United States. The fashion brand Nike, Kaepernick’s sponsor, stood behind the athlete, and a controversy ensued … Cybersecurity firms also identified fake Nike coupons originating from alt-right groups that targeted African American social media users with offers like “75% off all shoes for people of color.” The coupons were intended to create scenarios in which unwitting African American customers would try to use the coupons in a Nike store, where they would be refused. In the age of viral videos, this scenario could in turn create “real” footage showcasing a racist trope of an “angry black man” demanding free stuff in a store. So why would these disinformation operations target a fashion company and attempt to weaponize its brand? Because the objective of this hostile propaganda is not simply to interfere with our politics, or even to damage our companies. The objective is to tear apart our social fabric. They want us to hate one another.
By August 2014, less than a year after Bannon’s arrival, it all became too much for the one-time adviser to the Liberal Party of Canada. Two years after Wylie and CA parted company, Donald Trump became the GOP nominee: “If my hunch was correct, Cambridge Analytica was not only using the data tool I had worked on to manipulate American voters into supporting him, it may have been knowingly or unknowingly working with Russians to sway the election. … I felt sick to my stomach. And I knew I had to tell someone.” A few months after Trump’s election victory, Wylie went public. When he testified before the U.S. Congress, in June 2018, he was 29 years old.
Brittany Kaiser, Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again.
New York: Harper, 2019. 400 pages.
The digital arms race
A second book about Cambridge Analytica has been published: Brittany Kaiser’s Targeted. Kaiser, who also has a background in progressive politics, joined CA around the time Wylie was leaving. Targeted doesn’t add much to Wylie’s story. Kaiser seems mostly concerned with explaining why she stayed at CA for four years. None of the three books has an index, perhaps an unfortunate result of the shift toward electronic books.
The three books together are an introduction to another world. It would be nice to think that companies and governments are tightening up rules and legislation to protect our private data, but my guess is that the increasing sophistication of our cybersecurity experts will be matched by the increasing sophistication of our hackers, in a kind of digital-evolution arms race. Snowden, Wylie, Kaiser and a host of others have myriad suggestions. I don’t mean to denigrate them, but they don’t make me feel safe from predators like the wealthy among us who will stop at absolutely nothing in pursuit of their ends. The outcome, if not their intention, seems to be an increasing number of failed organizations and states.
Back in March, Snopes.com declared as “false” rumours that U.S. representatives had used COVID-19 legislation to give themselves a $25 million pay raise. Who started and promoted the rumour?
Would a Cambridge Analytica clone incite Indigenous people to block railways in support of other Indigenous groups?
Did you know that your computer’s camera can watch you, even when the computer is off?
The irony is that while Bannon and friends are out to create distrust and paranoia in all of us, these three books (and a host of films) do exactly that in me.
1 The Economist, May 6, 2017; The Economist, February 8, 2020.