Is it Götterdämmerung for the giants of information technology? Maybe not the fall of night, but a distinct lowering of the wattage emanating from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, after allegations its latest data leak involved the details of some 50 million customers whose online habits were then used for electoral manipulation.
The scandal involves data-mining and campaign-messaging firm Cambridge Analytica, whose co-founder Christopher Wylie blew the whistle to newspapers in London and New York last weekend. “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,” Wylie said.
Cambridge Analytica is already notorious for its work for Republican presidential campaigns in 2016 and the Brexit “Leave” campaign. It was started in 2013 as an offshoot of the British behavioural research firm SCL Group, which has done jobs often likened to “psy ops” for governments and military forces around the world. “We use digital, traditional and in-person communications to inform and influence target groups,” SCL’s website says.
The far-right American investment banker Robert Mercer put in $US15 million, and Breitbart News founder Steve Bannon another million or two, to start up Cambridge Analytica in the United States. Initially it worked for candidate Ted Cruz, then when Bannon was running Donald Trump’s campaign, it got a reported $US6 million to use its techniques for him.
Coincidental to Wylie’s bombshell, Britain’s Channel 4 pulled off one of the oldest stings in the tabloid book. It sent in reporters posing as Sri Lankan political operatives and potential customers to quiz Cambridge Analytica chief Alexander Nix and executives Mark Turnbull and Alex Tayler about their services, a video camera hidden in a briefcase.
Turnbull said the method was to play on fears, often using front companies to disguise involvement. “You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you,” he was recorded saying. “And our job is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really, deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.”
More luridly, Nix seemed to suggest that his firm carried out its own stings. It could tempt candidates into agreeing to future lucrative deals, “instantly having video evidence of corruption, putting it on the internet”. Or it could “send some girls around to the candidate’s house”.
At other points in the conversation, Nix and Turnbull backed away from the idea of honey traps and stings. Nonetheless, by Tuesday Nix was declared “suspended” from Cambridge Analytica (though he still seems to be on the SCL payroll), the British information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, was seeking a warrant to audit the company, and Facebook had lost tens of billions in sharemarket value.
Intriguingly, the Cambridge Analytica team listed Australia as one of dozens of countries where it had provided its services. SCL Group and CA had been represented here since 2015 by a Sydney former car salesman and marketing guru, Allan Lorraine, after he was recruited by Tayler.
The Nix team did come to Canberra last April, where it held a soiree for Liberal Party federal director Tony Nutt, minister Dan Tehan and other Liberal figures. However the audience was sceptical. “We have far more sophisticated data and messaging tools here, now, on all sides of politics, which are being successfully exported, not imported,” Guardian Australia was told by one Liberal source.
Lorraine was reported to have deregistered his CA business this week after the latest scandal broke, saying the outfit never got any political work here. However, another has popped up in his place, The Australian reported: a thrusting young Sydney University law graduate named Peter Jones is now promoting Cambridge Analytica services.
Trump fires up
In Washington, cyclone Donald intensified. Having sacked Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, it was as if Trump felt all restraint had been lifted and he could finally be himself.
He got the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, fired two days ahead of his scheduled retirement and eligibility for full pension. Then he made it clear he wanted to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, the widely respected former FBI director and known Republican voter, for a bias towards Hillary Clinton in his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Mueller’s latest offence appeared to be a subpoena for financial records from the Trump Organization, something Trump had previously declared to be a “red line”. US political circles are meanwhile trying to join the dots between the Cambridge Analytica operations and the Russian cyber campaign to help Trump. The president’s lawyers continued efforts to silence women who want to talk about their sexual encounters with him.
After applying new tariffs on steel and aluminium imports that threaten trade war with the European Union, Trump seemed to be gearing up for another Friday frenzy this week, with talk of a $US60 billion slug on Chinese high-tech imports deemed to use intellectual property either stolen from US competitors or extorted from them as the price of entry to the Chinese market. It was not clear if this meant the amount to be collected in duties or the value of trade affected.
Trump also signed off on legislation allowing exchanges of senior officials by the US and Taiwan, drawing a sharp response from China’s Xi Jinping. “Any actions and tricks to split China are doomed to failure and will meet with … the punishment of history,” Xi told the National People’s Congress.
Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, took over the running on the nerve-agent poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, from Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Whereas Rudd had seemed to want to follow the example of the 2006 poisoning of the KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, in which patient police work led to the naming of the Russian assassins, Johnson has gone on the attack, accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering the attacks and claiming to have evidence Russia was “stockpiling” the nerve agent Novichok for future hits.
Western powers lined up behind Johnson. The Soviet Union developed Novichok in the 1970s to evade chemical and biological weapons bans. It was used in 1995 to kill a troublesome banker in Moscow. Putin is an undoubted killer. However, a bit more softly softly by Scotland Yard might have drawn out more from the Russians. No one has yet come up with a reason why Putin would go after Skripal so long after his handover in a spy swap, though there was a suggestion he had helped former MI6 officer Christopher Steele compile his dossier on Trump’s alleged antics in Moscow.
Meanwhile, we should keep in mind Johnson is a former journalist who once reported from Brussels that the EU wanted to straighten Europe’s bananas.
In Britain, it was the foreign minister invading the home minister’s turf. In Australia, it was the other way round.
Peter Dutton caused a diplomatic tiff for Julie Bishop to hose down by suggesting South Africa’s white farmers need to be given asylum in a “civilised country” such as Australia, and praising them as the kind of settlers we need.
This week John Menadue, who was immigration department secretary in the final three years of the Fraser government, had a different take. He recalled how in 1981 his minister, Ian Macphee, was concerned about racial violence in Western Australia towards Asian immigrants.
“We were advised by our own department officials and the police that much of this violence was provoked by white migrants from Southern Rhodesia,” Menadue writes. “I am not sure how successful we were, but we attempted to put a stop to migration of these sorts of people from southern Africa … Malcolm Fraser must be turning in his grave at the welcome Peter Dutton is extending to Afrikaner farmers.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 17, 2018 as "Cambridge Analytica gets Facebook data for Nix".
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