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Mar 20 2018

The Russian Connection: “A Bannon of Sleazebags”

I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention to the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica story when it broke on Saturday. But on Monday, the story became a really big deal when the markets took a nose dive and it was headlines on two continents as more of the story came to light. As I said, on Saturday evening a whistleblower revealed that 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach

The data analytics firm that worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters, in one of the tech giant’s biggest ever data breaches, and used them to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box.

A whistleblower has revealed to the Observer how Cambridge Analytica – a company owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – used personal information taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Christopher Wylie, who worked with a Cambridge University academic to obtain the data, told the Observer: “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. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals. [..]

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. The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election. It comes only weeks after indictments of 13 Russians by the special counsel Robert Mueller which stated they had used the platform to perpetrate “information warfare” against the US. [..]

Kogan, who has previously unreported links to a Russian university and took Russian grants for research, had a licence from Facebook to collect profile data, but it was for research purposes only. So when he hoovered up information for the commercial venture, he was violating the company’s terms. Kogan maintains everything he did was legal, and says he had a “close working relationship” with Facebook, which had granted him permission for his apps.

The company has linked to a Russian oil company, that is currently sanctioned by the US, and a university in St. Petersburg. It also ignored the ban on foreigners working US elections. In the 2014 midterms and the Trump campaign, firm was staffed mainly by young Britons and Canadians:

The company’s responsibilities under US law were laid out in a lawyer’s memo to the company’s vice-president, Steve Bannon, British CEO Alexander Nix and Rebekah Mercer, daughter of billionaire owner Robert Mercer, in July 2014. It made it clear that most senior and mid-level positions involving strategy, planning, fundraising or campaigning needed to be filled by US citizens. [..]

It was clear that as a company largely run and staffed by Britons and Canadians, apart from Bannon and Mercer at the top, Cambridge Analytica – which was to go on to work on Donald’s Trump presidential election campaign – had a looming problem. [..]

It specifically called for Nix to step down from work on US elections. “In order for Cambridge to engage in such activities, Mr Nix would first have to be recused from substantive management of any such clients involved in US elections,” it said.

Employees working for Cambridge Analytica in the US at the time claimed that rather than tackling the problem, management appeared to ignore it. [..]

The legal memo also warned Cambridge Analytica that it needed to carefully hide behind a firewall any work it did in a single state or election for a particular candidate and for any of the so-called super-PACs (political action committees) supporting the campaign.

These committees can spend unlimited funds but cannot coordinate with individual candidates.

Then on Monday, with Facebook stocks tumbling, more was revealed the more unseemly services Cambridge Analytica offered its clients with the release of this video of CEO Nix:

In a series of meetings with a reporter posing as a representative of a wealthy Sri Lankan family seeking political influence, Cambridge Analytica executives initially denied the company was in the business of using entrapment techniques.

But Nix later detailed the dirty tricks the company would be prepared to pull behind the scenes to help its clients.

When the reporter asked if Cambridge Analytica could offer investigations into the damaging secrets of rivals, Nix said it worked with former spies from Britain and Israel to look for political dirt. He also volunteered that his team were ready to go further than an investigation.

“Oh, we do a lot more than that,” he said over dinner at an exclusive hotel in London. “Deep digging is interesting, but you know equally effective can be just to go and speak to the incumbents and to offer them a deal that’s too good to be true and make sure that that’s video recorded.

“You know these sort of tactics are very effective, instantly having video evidence of corruption.”

Nix suggested one possible scenario, in which the managing director of Cambridge Analytica’s political division, Mark Turnbull, would pose as a wealthy developer looking to exchange campaign finance for land. “I’m a master of disguise,” Turnbull said.

Another option, Nix suggested, would be to create a sex scandal. “Send some girls around to the candidate’s house, we have lots of history of things,” he told the reporter. “We could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us, you know what I’m saying.”

When he wasn’t talking about meddling in elections with entrapment tactics, the Cambridge Analytica executive referenced the potency of political misinformation. “It doesn’t have to be true,” Nix said. “It just has to be believed.” Just the kind of company the likes of Donald trump and Ted Cruz would love.

You would think this would get the House Republicans to reopen the investigation into the Trump campaign’s connection to Russia. As reported by Steve Brennan at MSNBC’s MaddowBlog, nope, not interested. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow looks at this scandal and others that is rocking the already troubled Trump administration.

Thanks to Charlie Pierce for the “bannon of sleazebags” meme who explains why this is not an anomaly:

On January 27, 1972, a creative and ambitious lawyer named G. Gordon Liddy, then in the employ of President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, made a presentation in the office of Attorney General John Mitchell concerning something he called Operation Gemstone. This was, Liddy said, a program designed to disrupt the Democratic convention, and also to keep the Republican convention secure from disruption. Liddy priced the whole thing out at $1 million. He proposed kidnapping “radical” leaders and holding them incommunicado in Mexico until the GOP convention was over. [..]

John Mitchell, who was no bowl of buttercups, determined amusedly that Liddy’s proposal was not quite what he had in mind. White House counsel John Dean was horrified. In his now famous “cancer on the presidency” meeting in the Oval Office, captured on the White House tapes of March 21, 1973, Dean told Nixon about this most extraordinary gathering:

Dean: … [Clears throat] So I came over and Liddy laid out a million dollar plan that was the most incredible thing I have ever laid my eyes on: all in codes, and involved black bag operations, kidnapping, providing prostitutes, uh, to weaken the opposition, bugging, uh, mugging teams. It was just an incredible thing. [Clears throat]

Poor Gordon Liddy. A man ahead of his time. If he worked for Cambridge Analytica—and, knowing what we know now, it’s amazing that he doesn’t—he could have set this whole thing up from his recliner at home with a few keystrokes. No uncomfortable meetings. No outraged White House counsels.

There simply was nothing about the Trump campaign that wasn’t rotten at its core. The candidate himself and most of his advisers had a positive gift for finding the most rancid operatives available to do the most rancid kind of work. By the time the election rolled around, the whole Trump operation had rats in its brains and poisonous spiders in its blood. It produced not a presidency, but a wart-ridden golem of a presidency, wandering and staggering around the landscape with bits of its pestiferous flesh falling into the public prints every day. Good Christ, what has this country done?

That about sums up the Trump Administration. Quite a den of back stabbing thieves and crooks.