A former top Cambridge Analytica employee is sounding the alarm on illicit data use, warning society at large that personal data online remains at risk roughly two years after the company's misuse of Facebook data first came to light.
"We don't have enough laws and regulations to actually police the big tech industry in the way that it needs to be," Brittany Kaiser, a former senior director at the controversial London-based firm, told Cheddar.
Kaiser joined Cambridge Analytica in 2014 and has emerged recently as a central figure in the company's scandal, which was largely uncovered in early 2018 and centers around the use of false pretenses to harvest personal information from millions of U.S. voters' Facebook accounts. The company was first employed by the 2016 campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and later used by then-candidate Donald Trump's team. With the mined data, the campaigns could essentially deploy highly targeted political ads to likely and on-the-fence voters.
"The biggest shock was Facebook's negligence in actually following up to see how people's data had been used," said Kaiser, who served as Cambridge Analytica's director of business development and helped coordinate the company's dealings with 2016 campaigns. "There were plenty of ways they could have put obstacles in place to make sure the developers weren't able to exploit data in the way that Cambridge Analytica was eventually able to."
Facebook announced in April 2018 that the personal information of up to 87 million people was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, which was established in 2013 as a subsidiary of the SCL Group, a behavioral research firm. The company was co-founded by Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign's chief executive and later White House adviser, and financed partly by Robert Mercer, an American billionaire with a long history of funding conservative and right-wing groups.
The data improprieties that percolated through the 2016 election were exposed by whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee who began speaking anonymously to The Observer in 2017 and later went on record for The Guardian.
"I started to realize the ways in which data had been used during the Trump campaign … were much more dangerous than people were talking about," added Kaiser, who would also go on to discuss publicly the many unsavory practices of her former employer.
Cambridge Analytica eventually shut down entirely in May 2018, just months after an undercover video surfaced of executives offering extortion, bribery, and honey trap services to a potential client that was seeking to influence an election in Sri Lanka.
Kaiser herself has also become a figure of intrigue, having gone from an academic and ambitious campaigner for Barack Obama in 2008 to a Cambridge Analytica director that facilitated many of the company's controversial dealings in support of far-right causes.
Today, however, Kaiser is speaking publicly to explain her involvement in Cambridge Analytica and speak out against big tech's and bad actors' continued abuses of consumer data.
In April 2018, she told British lawmakers during live testimony that "shining a light on historic abuses, whether illegal or illegitimate, can help us forge a new social contract in which we use our wealth of data for good, instead of exploitation." Kaiser spoke before Parliament to explain her role in facilitating Cambridge Analytica's questionable services to the Leave.EU campaign and the UK Independence Party, the two leading pro-Brexit groups. She also reportedly cooperated fully with a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Kaiser, moreover, is seeking to influence Facebook and institute broad privacy protection reforms with her #OwnYourData campaign. "Not only do people not understand the tech industry, they don't understand how vulnerable Facebook and companies like Cambridge Analytica have left our personal data," she told Cheddar.
Kaiser has also called for robust digital literacy and data privacy programs that can prepare the world's youth for the current internet age. "Before kids have their first device they need to understand how to protect themselves," said Kaiser, whose new memoir, Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower's Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again, details her story and issues a stark warning on data manipulation and illicit use.