A while back I decided to read up on my IT security awareness and made a list of books to read. I read a couple, for instance “There’s a war on but nobody knows!” (translated title) by a journalist who analyzed the international hacker scene, and “Targeted” by Brittany Kaiser. The last book was easy to read, it chornicles the adventures of real life Brittany Kaiser who decided to work for the mother company SCL Group of the now well known and prosecuted Cambridge Analytica.
The story of how she got hired and ultimately fired by Alex Nix, a colorfull albeit ruthless and slightly autistic man, who has by now been prosecuted for the abuse of Facebook data after having claimed to have destroyed it.
The basic business proposition of the SCL group was that it could produce marketing content that would help achieve the aims of whoever hired them. This could be billboards or webcontent on facebook, targeted adds or email campaigns. The SCL group exists since 1990, and it seems to have been involved in a number of political maneurvres, revolutions you could say. In one part of the book Alexander claims that they could both start a revolution and uprising, and when the end of it was achieved could calm people down as well.
Brittany describes that the help of the company was used in the Brexit referendum and in much more detail the Trump election. In both cases the claim was that a database of targets for influencing would be created. Facebook was used for a long time because it made data available on the relations of people through its develoment API (this is a kind of raw data portal that software developers can talk to), so that millions of voters could be precisely profiled and, what is more amazing : Adds could be speficially targeted to specific groups.
Both Brexit and Trump can likely be attributed to targeted lying to people who’s privacy had been compromized by Facebook
After Facebook stopped allowing download of relation data and personal datapoints, it did continue to ‘augment’ profiles, so if Cambridge Analytica tried to target a family man redneck in Texas in a constituency with water scarcity for instance, Facebook would still send the same message to a number of other members that fit the profile. These messages where part fact, part exaggeration, but often blatant lies and fabrications. The source of the add was usually not shown, so a facebook user would not know it was the Trump or Cruz campaign that produced the message.
Ted Cruz and later Trump’s CA driven rise was largely funded by the Mercers, who are basically anarchists
Now the book Targeted doesn’t go in too much detail, but it gives a pretty good picture of what is going on in terms of marketing. The online and sometimes even online experience of people is slowely being tailored just to their personality, by people that don’t identify themselves. People who run AI algorithms to find out what someone responds to, that know people better than they do themselves because modern life leaves litte room for introspection. The developers in the book even seemed to believe that a specific nr of ‘impressions’ would have a predictable effect.
Armies of hackers are employed in offices around the world. Sometimes with protection they can make millions in online crimes
Now before CA there was Snowden, and the NSA, who has been at recording communication since the 1940’s, starting with telegraph messages. You have What’sapp and other apps, who are encrypted but messages of which can be intercepted as they are typed on smartphones and PCs. The market of hacking tools, worms and viruses is so developed it has call centers. The book describes big office buildings full of hackers in China and ransomware criminals being used by Putin in Russia.
Today there are many SCL groups, and they work for politicians, governments, businesses and private citizen. We are against nuclear energy and it is 100% certain the nuclear lobby has hired an SCL clone to target me with messages that will soften my resistance. Why is it certain? Because it is cost effective. Because it works. Because the data is already in the hands of these companies. Even though Alexander Nix and CA has been convicted and fined for using Facebook data, Berxit and Trump are facts.
Reading Targeted is not so much usefull to learn that this is going on, it is a good way to get used to the idea, to kind of get massaged into this new world. “All your data are belong to us” to praphrase the bad english from a Japanese console game. Should you be paranoid about online and offline messages? Yes!! If you have no ambition and want to accept your fate, you will be programmed, because the people who are really paranoid are the ones trying to shape your opinion. To really believe it you need to take some time to give this influence arms and legs.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t believe in limiting political speech on his platform, even if its only a fraction of his revenue stream. It must be that now that Trump is in charge companies can’t operate freely and have to enable the republican agenda, or to be more precise the Mercer-Bannon-Trump agenda, which is greedy and nihilist. Even then, most adds in the Trump campaign where not easy to trace back to Trump. This means that even if Zuckerberg says he doesn’t want politicians to lie in adds on his platform, he can still show adds of ‘Astroturf’ non-profit grassroots fake companies that convey messages advantageous to one politician or another.
The most serious consequence of automated personalized messages is that it might be true to make a system like that 100% reliable. It may be that developers now know how many messages of what kind to what people they have to make happen to achieve a certain outcome. When Boris Johnson hammered the phrase “Get it done” to win the votes to finalize Brexit, an outsider could see that he was like a mugger, who was mugging the UK, and the UK getting tired of it after 3 years agreed: Get it over with! It took the loss to get rid of the hassle. Brexit was manhandled through in a way, but the voters didn’t know anymore being confused and fed up.
There are two options now for the world : Regions will increasingly fall in the grip of a continuous barrage of messages that push people around, into anger and fear and despair, resulting in a shakeout by opportunists. Or some regions put a stop to this new industry of robo-psy-ops while there are still thinking responsible people in it. The odds are stacked against the latter.