The Great Hack – democracy at risk of serious damage

If you value information privacy, online integrity and democratic processes, and you have access to Netflix, then I recommend you watch The Great Hack.

It is a documentary movie that shows how the acquisition of online data, in particular from Facebook, has been used to manipulate opinions and elections. The now bankrupt UK based company Cambridge Analytica is one of the main focuses, with close links to the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the Donald Trump nomination and election as US president. Russian influence in elections is also a part of the story.

 

From a review by Odie Henderson (robertebert.com):

“The Great Hack” concerns itself with the United States Presidential election of 2016 and, to a lesser extent, the Brexit vote and other international political campaigns. The common factor in all these events is a now-defunct firm called Cambridge Analytica, represented throughout the film by several former employees. At the height of its powers, the company held up to 5,000 data points about each of the people contained in its databases.

This information was used for a variety of purposes meant to manipulate a certain cross-section of people. The master manipulators didn’t go after people whose minds had been made up; they went after on-the-fence folks referred to as “the persuadables.” Using the collected data, Cambridge Analytica set out to create fear and/or apathy to achieve the results of the political parties that hired them. Carroll’s lawsuit is an attempt to retrieve the data collected on him.

And how did the thousands of points of data wind up in those databases? Well, you willingly gave it to them, dear readers. Remember those seemingly innocent Facebook quizzes that you took to determine what Disney villain you were, or whether you were an introvert or any other goofy question you couldn’t wait to have answered so you could share it with friends online? Those little diversions asked specific questions that were used to harvest data.

Based on this and other information gleaned from Facebook posts and the friends with whom you associated on that platform, the data analysis tools used artificial intelligence and evaluations to create a startlingly accurate profile of you. Carroll asks his class if they ever think their phone is listening in on them because the ads they see seem perfectly tailored for them. Everyone says yes. Carroll tells them that this manufactured profile is why.

This is sure to be a controversial documentary, not just because it sees Brexit and the GOP Presidential campaign involvement with Cambridge Analytica as a sinister, almost military-grade level of psychological warfare against an unsuspecting public, but because it also highlights how large groups of people can easily be led to vote against their own interests.

There’s a too-brief section focusing on the “Do So” campaign in Trinidad and Tobago, where social media was flooded with catchy graphics and slogans designed to foster apathy in folks who would vote for the side not allegedly in cahoots with Cambridge. The Do So campaign made it seem cool not to vote at all, so many young people did not. As with the American campaign, the bombardment of ads and demonizing and false news stories was relentless.

The movie named a number of countries in which similar Cambridge Analytica had experimented, and also showed a map of the spread around the world. New Zealand appears to have avoided being targeted – so far. But I think that it’s likely that similar targeted ‘psychological warfare’ is likely to be tried here, if it hasn’t been already.

Breitbart News is also connected in The Great Hack.  Here in New Zealand the now far right Whale Oil website has championed Breitbart and modeled themselves on them, including the use of ‘fake news’ targeting political and ethnic/religious groups. ‘Whaleoil staff’ put up such a post yesterday.

Some of those who like the result of the Brexit referendum and the last US presidential election may see no problem here, but unless solutions are found then democracy around the world may well be heading for destruction.

Indeed, that is the aim of some of those who are trying to manipulate minds online, and swing elections – they believe that a breakdown of the current political systems is necessary to impose their own power structures on countries.

One thing in our  favour here may be that New Zealand has been relatively insignificant in the  the whole scheme of world politics and power.

But – if the international populism of Jacinda Ardern is seen as a threat to those using online data and online forums to brainwash people who are susceptible to being influenced then I don’t think we can rule out significant foreign interference in a future election here.

Fortunately the firearms reforms here have had near unanimous support in Parliament, with no time for major interference from abroad, although the US NRA has been linked to some attempts to swing opinion here in support of unfettered access to weapons.

But upcoming referendums on cannabis law reform, and possibly in euthanasia could be at risk. The debates on these issues have already been subject to false claims and distortions by some groups intent on imposing their views on the wider population.

Democracy is at risk of serious damage, due to the quest for profits by huge online media companies, and the harvesting and use of private data in a new and insidious form of propaganda by interest groups and countries,

Our democracy has not been perfect, but it has been better than most if not all alternatives. It is at real risk of being munted by international money makers and power seekers.

More on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook

Australia has been included in possible targets of Cambridge Analytica being used to try to influence election outcomes.

Stuff: Cambridge Analytica CEO appears to talk about election bribes, sex workers on video

According to the video posted by Channel 4 News, Nix appears to suggest the company could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house.” He later added that he favoured Ukranian women in particular: “They are very beautiful, I find that works very well.”

The surreptitiously recorded video also appears to depict conversations involving Nix, Mark Turnbull, the managing director of Cambridge Analytica Political Global, and Alex Tayler, the chief data officer. The Channel 4 News team reportedly told the company officials they were meeting with a “fixer for a wealthy client hoping to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka.”

The executives repeatedly appear to brag about their behind-the-scenes efforts to influence political outcomes in Mexico, Australia and Kenya, at one point teasing that they’re beginning to work in China, too.

I doubt that any use of data analysis for outside interference could have had much effect on the New Zealand general election last year given the dramatic changes in the two months leading up to the election.

For an overview from the Independent:  Why is everyone so worried about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica?

Facebook has been engulfed in a growing scandal over the way it harvests data.

The problems began when it emerged that Cambridge Analytica, a political data company, had been using Facebook to gather information. But it is quickly broadening out – casting a light on the way data is gathered on Facebook more generally, and how it is used to sway people not only to buy things but to change how they vote and who runs the world.

What has happened?

In short, people’s data has been collected to try and understand more about them and change how they vote. That’s been the work of Cambridge Analytica, a data company that has been credited – rightly or wrongly – with helping both the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns achieve their victories.

A whistleblower revealed that the site had been able to Hoover up 50 million user profiles by having them take a quiz on the site that gave them access to some of the data that Facebook had collected about them. That data was taken, it is claimed, to help target the kind of political ads that have received sustained scrutiny in the wake of those results – and have been given at least some of the blame (or credit) for making them happen.

This time around, though, the data was not being used for just any advertising. It was allegedly being utilised to direct messages for campaigns helped out by data firm Cambridge Analytica: Brexit and Donald Trump.

How much of a part that marketing, or Cambridge Analytica, had to do with either of those results is still a mystery, and we’ll never truly know.

Elections are complex, with many influences, but when results are close a concerted subliminal effort to swing the result could make a difference.

Doesn’t this sort of stuff happen all the time?

Yes. The Cambridge Analytica disclosures are especially newsworthy and relate to current affairs – but that kind of data-gathering is happening on a daily basis.

Many of the apparently innocent games or quizzes you’ve signed up to on the site will be doing the same sort of information-gathering: asking Facebook for your personal details and then taking them away for whatever purposes they want. And Facebook itself is doing the same, with everything you post or do on the site being fed into a set of data that is then used to serve you relevant advertising.

I’ve always been suspicious of interactive apps on Facebook and have avoided being sucked in to participate, but many people do.

What should I do?

The most important advice applies generally to the Internet: be alert and cautious about everything you do. Just about every service is trying to take your data – which shows just how valuable it is, and therefore how important it is to make sure it doesn’t get into the hands of people who want to exploit you with it.

The same caution should apply to the things you read on the internet, too, especially if you don’t know where it has come from. The Cambridge Analytica data – like any data – won’t change anything by itself, and it’s how it’s used that’s really damaging. In the case of the recent news, for instance, the data was collected to build a database of voters and attempt to sway them by showing them ads.

Just like companies trying to sway you to but their stuff. Buyer beware, voter beware.

More explanations from BBC: Cambridge Analytica: The story so far

It’s a sensational story containing allegations of sleaze, psychological manipulation and data misuse that has provoked an internationally furious response.

Tech giant Facebook and data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica are at the centre of a dispute over the harvesting and use of personal data – and whether it was used to influence the outcome of the US 2016 presidential election or the UK Brexit referendum.

Both firms deny any wrongdoing.

But investigations are under way in the US and UK.

BBC – Cambridge Analytica: Warrant sought to inspect company

The UK’s Information Commissioner says she will seek a warrant to look at the databases and servers used by British firm Cambridge Analytica.

Ms Denham demanded access to the firm’s databases and servers after it missed her Monday deadline.

“I’m not accepting their response so therefore I’ll be applying to the court for a warrant,” she told Channel 4.

She said she wanted to understand how data was “processed or deleted by Cambridge Analytica”.

BBC – Cambridge Analytica: Facebook boss summoned over data claims

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has been called on by a parliamentary committee to give evidence about the use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica.

The consulting firm is accused of harvesting the data of 50 million Facebook users without permission and failing to delete it when told to.

Damian Collins, the chairman of the Commons inquiry into fake news, accused Facebook of “misleading” the committee.

Both companies are under scrutiny following claims by a whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, who worked with Cambridge Analytica and alleges it amassed large amounts of data through a personality quiz on Facebook called This is Your Digital Life.

He claims that 270,000 people took the quiz, but the data of some 50 million users, mainly in the US, was harvested without their explicit consent via their friend networks.

Mr Wylie says that data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, which then used it to psychologically profile people and deliver pro-Trump material

In a letter to Mr Zuckerberg, Mr Collins accused Facebook of giving answers “misleading to the Committee” at a previous hearing which asked whether information had been taken without users’ consent.

He said it was “now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process”.

His intervention comes after the UK’s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she would be applying to court for a warrant to search the offices of Cambridge Analytica.

From the US:

 

Wall Street Journal- Facebook, Other Tech Giants Under Scrutiny by Congress Over User Data

Lawmakers are pushing for an aggressive inquiry into allegations that a firm tied to President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign gathered data from millions of Facebook Inc. profiles without authorization, calling for hearings and possible additional regulation of digital advertising.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers are calling for the top executives of tech companies—including Facebook, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc.—to appear before Congress to explain how they protect user data from being exploited…

A claim that Facebook helped the Obama campaign in 2012: Ex-Obama Campaign Director on Facebook: They Were On Our Side

A former Obama campaign official is claiming that Facebook knowingly allowed them to mine massive amounts of Facebook data — more than they would’ve allowed someone else to do — because they were supportive of the campaign.

In a Sunday tweet thread, Carol Davidsen, former director of integration and media analytics for Obama for America, said the 2012 campaign led Facebook to “suck out the whole social graph” and target potential voters. They would then use that data to do things like append their email lists.

Facebook has been widely exploited.

Washington Post – Facebook’s rules for accessing user data lured more than just Cambridge Analytica

Facebook last week suspended the Trump campaign’s data consultant, Cambridge Analytica, for scraping the data of potentially millions of users without their consent. But thousands of other developers, including the makers of games such as FarmVille and the dating app Tinder, as well as political consultants from President Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, also siphoned huge amounts of data about users and their friends, developing deep understandings of people’s relationships and preferences.

Cambridge Analytica — unlike other firms that access Facebook’s user data — broke Facebook’s rules by obtaining the data under the pretense of academic use. But experts familiar with Facebook’s systems and policies say that the greater problem was that the rules for accessing the social network’s information trove were so loose in the first place.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2007 invited outside developers to build their businesses off Facebook’s data, giving them ready access to the friend lists, “likes” and affinities that connect millions of Facebook users. Practically any engineer who could persuade a Facebook user to download an app or to sign into a website using Facebook’s popular “log-in through Facebook” feature would have been able to access not only the profile, behavior and location of that Facebook user but also that of all the user’s Facebook friends, developers said.

So even if you have avoided being baited to click, if you are on Facebook you could have been profiled and targeted.

Not surprisingly this is impacting on Facebook.

CNBC: Facebook stock drops after reports of FTC probe and UK summons of Zuckerberg in data scandal

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether the use of personal data from 50 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica violated a consent decree the tech company signed with the agency in 2011, Bloomberg reported Monday.

The probe follows a weekend of turmoil for the social media giant.

Shares of Facebook fell nearly 5 percent Tuesday, after skidding as much as 8 percent on Monday.

Still falling Tuesday (US time):

Was New Zealand’s election rigged by foreign powers?

There are big and concerning questions about the use of Facebook to gather hundreds of millions of personality profiles, and then to target those people with “rumour, disinformation and fake news” to influence elections – with Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in the US, the UK’s Brexit vote, and others. What about the UK general election? France? Germany? Canada?

See Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the data war.

What about New Zealand? Our election last year was probably mostly influenced by a chain of events, locally derived.

It was always going to be difficult for National to hold on for a fourth term in power, especially given the lack of support parties – a situation that had been evolving for many years.

It would be far fetched to think that Metiria Turei was brainwashed to self destruct and nearly drag the greens down with her.

It would be far fetched to think that Andrew Little was brainwashed to step down as Labour leader less than two months before the election..

It would be far fetched to think that Jacinda Ardern and her sudden rise were influenced by foreign powers – she and her media managers have been working on being ready for an opportunity for some time.

It wouldn’t be so far fetched to think that New Zealand journalists have been targeted and influenced, given their embrace of social media like Twitter and Facebook.

It wouldn’t be so far fetched that Winston Peters has been influenced to suddenly promote a trade agreement with Russia when has been generally strongly opposed to trade agreements.

The personality profile targeting of mass voters seems feasible, and worrying.

It would be far simpler to personality profile individual politicians and to target them.

Of course I don’t think I have been influenced by profilers and manipulators at all [- that’s just something that everyone else could be susceptible to.

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the data war

I often seen people doing and sharing surveys and quizzes on Facebook. They always looked looked suspicious to me – they looked designed to suck people in.

And it turns out some of them were exactly that – for a nefarious reason. They were used to gather data and compile personality profiles of hundreds of millions of people, and then those people were targeted with “rumour, disinformation and fake news” to influence them in elections.

The process was used experimentally in many elections in many countries – I don’t know if New Zealand was subjected to subliminal coercion (journalists?). The first big election that it was tried on was the Brexit vote in the UK, which surprisingly swung to a vote to exit the European Union.

Then it was used in the US election which resulted in Donald Trump being elected against the odds (aided by a flawed campaign and a flawed campaigner, Hillary Clinton).

Now Cambridge Analytica and the use and abuse of Facebook is being exposed.

Bloomberg: Facebook Suspends Trump Election Data Firm for Policy Violations

  • Data harvested from 50 million Facebook accounts: N.Y. Times
  • Fighting ‘culture war,’ ex-Cambridge Analytica employee says

Facebook Inc. suspended Cambridge Analytica, a data company that helped President Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election and which may have collected data from 50 million Facebook profiles without their owners’ permission.

The social-networking company said in a blog post Friday that Cambridge Analytica received some user data through an app developer on its social network, violating its policies. In 2015, Facebook said Cambridge Analytica certified that it had destroyed the information.

“Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted,” Facebook said in a statement. Cambridge Analytica and parent Strategic Communication Laboratories have been suspended from the social network, “pending further information,” Facebook said.

Cambridge Analytica said in a Saturday statement it did nothing illegal and is ​in touch with Facebook in order to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.

Originally funded by Robert Mercer, the conservative political donor and former co-chief executive officer of Renaissance Technologies, Cambridge uses data to reach voters with hyper-targeted messaging, including on Facebook and other online services. It was hired to help with voter outreach by the Trump campaign, whose former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, had been on the company’s board.

Steve Bannon was closely connected to this – and became closely connected to the Trump campaign.

Now one of the people deeply involved is blowing the whistle:The Cambridge Analytica Files 

‘I created Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower

For more than a year we’ve been investigating Cambridge Analytica and its links to the Brexit Leave campaign in the UK and Team Trump in the US presidential election. Now, 28-year-old Christopher Wylie goes on the record to discuss his role in hijacking the profiles of millions of Facebook users in order to target the US electorate.

Starting in 2007, Stillwell, while a student, had devised various apps for Facebook, one of which, a personality quiz called myPersonality, had gone viral. Users were scored on “big five” personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism – and in exchange, 40% of them consented to give him access to their Facebook profiles.

Suddenly, there was a way of measuring personality traits across the population and correlating scores against Facebook “likes” across millions of people.

The research was original, groundbreaking and had obvious possibilities. “They had a lot of approaches from the security services,” a member of the centre told me. “There was one called You Are What You Like and it was demonstrated to the intelligence services. And it showed these odd patterns; that, for example, people who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.

“There are agencies that fund research on behalf of the intelligence services. And they were all over this research. That one was nicknamed Operation KitKat.”

The defence and military establishment were the first to see the potential of the research.

That should be a concern to everyone – this is not the Russian establishment, it is the US and UK establishment, which New Zealand has close links to.

“And then I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behaviour, and it suddenly made sense. Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems they’re absent-minded professors and hippies. They’re the early adopters… they’re highly open to new ideas. And it just clicked all of a sudden.”

T…the job was research director across the SCL group, a private contractor that has both defence and elections operations. Its defence arm was a contractor to the UK’s Ministry of Defence and the US’s Department of Defense, among others. Its expertise was in “psychological operations” – or psyops – changing people’s minds not through persuasion but through “informational dominance”, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.

SCL Elections had used a similar suite of tools in more than 200 elections around the world, mostly in undeveloped democracies that Wylie would come to realise were unequipped to defend themselves.

It turned out the the UK and US democracies were unable to defend themselves either.

A few months later, in autumn 2013, Wylie met Steve Bannon. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart, which he had brought to Britain to support his friend Nigel Farage in his mission to take Britain out of the European Union.

“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”

But Wylie wasn’t just talking about fashion. He had recently been exposed to a new discipline: “information operations”, which ranks alongside land, sea, air and space in the US military’s doctrine of the “five-dimensional battle space”. His brief ranged across the SCL Group – the British government has paid SCL to conduct counter-extremism operations in the Middle East, and the US Department of Defense has contracted it to work in Afghanistan.

I tell him that another former employee described the firm as “MI6 for hire”, and I’d never quite understood it.

“It’s like dirty MI6 because you’re not constrained. There’s no having to go to a judge to apply for permission. It’s normal for a ‘market research company’ to amass data on domestic populations. And if you’re working in some country and there’s an auxiliary benefit to a current client with aligned interests, well that’s just a bonus.”

It was Bannon who took this idea to the Mercers: Robert Mercer – the co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who used his billions to pursue a rightwing agenda, donating to Republican causes and supporting Republican candidates – and his daughter Rebekah.

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” says Wylie. “I didn’t understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?”

Mueller’s investigation traces the first stages of the Russian operation to disrupt the 2016 US election back to 2014, when the Russian state made what appears to be its first concerted efforts to harness the power of America’s social media platforms, including Facebook. And it was in late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented the Russian oil company with an outline of its datasets, capabilities and methodology.

The presentation had little to do with “consumers”. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques.

Russia, Facebook, Trump, Mercer, Bannon, Brexit. Every one of these threads runs through Cambridge Analytica. Even in the past few weeks, it seems as if the understanding of Facebook’s role has broadened and deepened. The Mueller indictments were part of that, but Paul-Olivier Dehaye – a data expert and academic based in Switzerland, who published some of the first research into Cambridge Analytica’s processes – says it’s become increasingly apparent that Facebook is “abusive by design”. If there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it will be in the platform’s data flows, he says.

Millions of people’s personal information was stolen and used to target them in ways they wouldn’t have seen, and couldn’t have known about, by a mercenary outfit, Cambridge Analytica, who, Wylie says, “would work for anyone”. Who would pitch to Russian oil companies. Would they subvert elections abroad on behalf of foreign governments?

It occurs to me to ask Wylie this one night.

“Yes.”

Nato or non-Nato?

“Either. I mean they’re mercenaries. They’ll work for pretty much anyone who pays.”

It’s an incredible revelation. It also encapsulates all of the problems of outsourcing – at a global scale, with added cyberweapons. And in the middle of it all are the public – our intimate family connections, our “likes”, our crumbs of personal data, all sucked into a swirling black hole that’s expanding and growing and is now owned by a politically motivated billionaire.

The Facebook data is out in the wild. And for all Wylie’s efforts, there’s no turning the clock back.

What to take from all of this? It’s difficult to know. The Wylie revelations could be fake news. Or this story could reveal a propaganda genie that is now out of the bottle, an insidious corruption of democracy.

We are all influenced with the news and views we see online. It’s impossible for us to know whether we have been targeted, whether we have been sucked in, whether we have been influenced by people deliberately trying to swing elections.

Using political propaganda is nothing new, it has been done in various ways for a long time. But using the power and speed of the Internet, the potential is certainly there to take propaganda to a new and dangerous level.

How dangerous? Enough to steer the UK towards chaos as they try to extract themselves from the European Union. Enough to install a chaotic president in the US. Enough to elect an unlikely president in France? Enough to create a precarious political balance in Germany?

What about New Zealand? See Was New Zealand’s election rigged by foreign powers?