Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced data firm that guided the Trump campaign’s digital strategy and sparked Facebook’s latest troubles, reportedly wanted to branch out into shadier business: digital currencies. According to a former Cambridge employee, the planned token was aimed at giving people more control over their personal data.
Brittany Kaiser left Cambridge Analytica in January and she got out just in time. In March, news broke that the firm had illicitly acquired the data of millions of Facebook users from a third-party developer and integrated it into its political strategy business. Since then, undercover videos taken by journalists appeared to show executives offering clients election services that included blackmail and entrapment. The CEO, Alexander Nix, was suspended, and on Tuesday he bailed out of a scheduled appearance before British Parliament. Acting CEO Alexander Tayler stepped down last week. Now, Kaiser is telling her story.
The New York Times conducted interviews with Kaiser and viewed internal documents associated with the company’s plans to launch its own initial coin offering. From the report:
Cambridge Analytica’s own digital token was supposed to help people store and sell their online personal data, Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of the voter-profiling firm, said in an interview. The goal was to protect that data from more or less what the company did when it obtained the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users.
Cambridge Analytica began working with coin offerings in the middle of last year. The business was guided by Ms. Kaiser, an American who led the company’s business development and previously appeared at a press event with organizers of the “Brexit” campaign to get Britain out of the European Union.
Cambridge Analytica boasts that its “psychographic profiles” of voters and consumers allow for more persuasive and precisely targeted advertising. In marketing material sent to investors, the firm said Ms. Kaiser was “helping blockchain companies in using predictive modeling to target investors for token sales.”
Yes, the company that has become the poster child of data abuse thought itself to be the ideal pioneer for blockchain-centered data protection. The logic is kind of like putting a bank robber in charge of Fort Knox or electing someone president because they claim they’ve been legally bribing politicians for decades. As Kaiser put it to the Times, “Who knows more about the usage of personal data than Cambridge Analytica?”
It’s unclear how this particular project would have worked, but that’s not so uncommon in the world of ICOs. According to research firm Autonomous, more than $6 billion in funding flowed to ICOs in 2017, and separate research estimated that 59 percent of the projects are dead or dying.
Of course, the firm’s goals wouldn’t be altogether altruistic. The Times spoke with Jill Carlson, a consultant who works with blockchain companies, who claims that she attended pitch meetings with Cambridge execs. She said she became concerned when they mentioned a plan to persuade people in Mexico to take surveys by using the virtual currency as payment. The firm would then use the data it gathered to form campaign strategies in Mexico’s elections. “The way that Cambridge Analytica was talking about it, they were viewing it as a means of being able to basically inflict government control and private corporate control over individuals,” Carlson said.
Much like the open, sharing-focused internet culture that Facebook grew up in and ruined, the blockchain wave has been rooted in idealism and sunny predictions about decentralized networks. Cambridge Analytica is a reminder that there will always be a set of scumbags out there just waiting to pervert everyone’s good intentions.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Ms. Kaiser left Cambridge Analytica in February. According to her testimony to Parliament, she left the company in January of this year.