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Interview

Whistleblower warns of Cambridge Analytica's Asia reach

Former employees still active in elections, Brittany Kaiser says

TOKYO -- As Asia prepares for four national elections this year, a former executive at controversial political consultancy Cambridge Analytica warned of the company's persistent reach despite closing its doors in 2018.

"With hundreds of Cambridge Analytica remnants operating around the world, the threat of public opinion manipulation is growing in Asia," Brittany Kaiser told Nikkei. Her warning comes as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Myanmar all prepare to go to the polls in the coming months.

Kaiser blew the whistle on the company's alleged misuse of Facebook user data during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election, leading to her testifying before the British parliament and U.S. investigators.

"I feel like I kind of had blinders on because I wanted to believe that this company was building something really important," she said about her time at Cambridge Analytica, which began when she was writing her doctoral thesis on using real-time data to predict and prevent mass violence.

Kaiser recalled her surprise when news reports revealed that the company had illegally acquired Facebook data for commercial and political use, under the guise of academic research. According to Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica executives, including CEO Alexander Nix, had spoken openly of the Facebook datasets in presentations to clients. She said another executive, Alex Tayler, told her that the data was purchased legally from an academic who, according to Tayler, may have lied about how it was acquired.

"Obviously, later on, I found out that they were pretty well aware of what they were doing," Kaiser said.

Cambridge Analytica had deep ties to conservative political movements. It was partly owned by American billionaire Robert Mercer, a supporter of conservative causes. Stephen Bannon, who was chief strategist for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, was an executive at the company.

"It is my personal belief and due to the strategies and truth that I have seen [in] case studies, that without Cambridge Analytica as part of the team, [the Brexit and Trump campaigns] would probably not have been successful," Kaiser said.

Political consultancies like Cambridge Analytica and data companies like Google charge fees for their teams to assist political campaigns. Facebook, by contrast, provided the service for free to its biggest clients, according to Kaiser. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign declined Facebook's assistance, while the Trump campaign accepted it.

"These types of services are available to the highest bidder. It doesn't matter what the goals are of that individual," she said.

According to Kaiser, Facebook did not send a contract or a representative to ensure that Cambridge Analytica had deleted the illegally acquired data of 87 million users. "All they did was send an email that said the data was deleted, which I think is pretty irresponsible given that Cambridge Analytica is running elections around the world," Kaiser said, noting the consultancy's involvement in elections in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Kaiser argued that elections in the Philippines, due to the country's digital infrastructure, are particularly susceptible to online political manipulation. "You can actually purchase and license a lot of data on Filipino citizens, and because there's so much data in the Philippines, much more advanced tactics could be used there than in Malaysia," she said, adding that she would soon release files on the Philippines for local journalists to investigate.

Since becoming a whistleblower, Kaiser has written a memoir of her time at Cambridge Analytica, in which she detailed the inner workings of the company and gave her account of the events surrounding the 2016 U.S. election.

"What I think is one of the biggest misconceptions about the situation was that Russia and Cambridge Analytica possibly coordinated with each other. What everyone needs to understand is that Facebook made it really easy for Russia to target people without having to contact a data company like Cambridge Analytica," Kaiser said.

"In fact, Russia, or people anywhere in the world, legally buy data on American citizens. There are no laws that stop that from happening," she added.

To remedy that shortcoming, Kaiser founded two nonprofits -- the Own Your Data foundation teaches digital literacy to schoolchildren, while the Digital Asset Trade Association lobbies for public policy on data privacy.

"I wish I had become a whistleblower before the Trump campaign was finished. All I can do now is to work to ensure it doesn't happen again," she said.

"It's not the tools that are bad; it's the way in which you use them," she added. "Unfortunately, it's very hard to make moral and ethical guidelines that are optional that everybody decides to follow, which is why I spend so much time working on legislation and regulation, because we really have to make ethics legally required."

While such legislation is in the works, Kaiser said social media platforms like Facebook should ban political advertising. She applauded Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for taking that step, while criticizing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for "hiding behind free speech."

"He can't admit how big the problem is and that he doesn't have the ability to fix it," she said. "While they haven't solved the problem, it's better to have no political communications than to have communications that are dangerous."

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