Book Review: Former Cambridge Analytica Director Says She Saw Company Techniques 'As Savvy'There's a victim-blamey tone in Brittany Kaiser's memoir Targeted, but what it offers over other look-backs is a more in-the-room account of what exactly, she alleges, was in the company's pitch deck.
By my count, Brittany Kaiser mentions the TV show Mad Men four times in her new memoir Targeted. But her story tracks closer to that of another big TV show — Breaking Bad.
In it, she tells us she was driven by worry for her family after they took a couple big blows financially and medically (so, also, financially), and that she felt it necessary to make larger and larger moral concessions when money was involved. But, also like Breaking Bad, by the end of it you get the sense that she's more concerned with her own legacy than reckoning with any wrongdoing of her own part.
But let's back up. Brittany Kaiser is a former director at Cambridge Analytica — the now defunct one-stop shop for election swaying that got major attention for how it used its massive pool of data on us, the American voters. This is the second Cambridge Analytica memoir to come out this month — the first being from the more well-known Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Kaiser's at a bit of a disadvantage coming out second, considering that in the earlier one Wylie positions her as an eager and ambitious Cambridge Analytica employee who jumped ship at the last possible second. Kaiser gets in her own digs at Wylie here, too, though — all of which is: 1. Fun, if you, like me, love petty beefs, but 2. A bit disheartening all around.
That being said, where Wylie's book focused more on the data-collection aspect of things (he says he was existentially enamored by the predictive ability of data), Kaiser's job at Cambridge Analytica involved more direct pitching to potential clients. Which means it offers a more practical and understandable review of what exactly was on the menu. A lot's been said about Cambridge Analytica and its various misdeeds (Kaiser was at the center of the Netflix documentary The Great Hack), but what Targeted offers that other Cambridge Analytica look-backs don't is a more in-the-room account of what exactly, she alleges, was in the Powerpoint pitch deck.
There's a scene early on where Kaiser learns the sales pitch. It's a training run, and the pretend issue at hand is a ballot initiative on gun rights. She's pitching to her boss, Alexander Nix, and she goes through the data points she has on possible voters, how they're grouped into categories, and what messaging might speak to them best. She writes:
"'The 'Extroverted and Disagreeable' voter needs a message that is all about her ability to assert her rights,' I said. 'This type of voter likes to be heard. On any topic,' I said. 'She knows what's best for her. She has a strong internal locus of control and hates to be told what to do, especially by the government.'
The woman on the slide was wielding a handgun, a fierce expression on her face. The text below read, 'Don't Question My Right to Own a Gun, and I Won't Question Your Stupidity Not To.'
This was my pièce de résistance."
We can talk all day about disinformation campaigns and bots and foreign influence on social media, but until we break down specifically how and why certain imagery appeals to us, we won't ever be prepared to adequately handle weaponized memery already in use.
Where the book is less concrete is when it comes to Kaiser's own reckoning with how dangerous Cambridge Analytica actually was. Unlike the Wylie book, Kaiser cops to being swept up in the romance of it all: Hopping from country to country, going to fancy rich-people parties like DAVOS, courting world leaders. But unlike Wylie, when it comes to the question of How Did We Get Here? she doesn't seem to be blowing her whistle at CA but, rather, at the ecosystem at large. After the first Guardian piece about Cambridge Analytica using Facebook data obtained non-consensually, she writes:
"We knew this all too well, so what was the problem? When Facebook users decided to use an app on Facebook, they clicked a box displaying the app's 'terms of service.' Hardly any of them bothered to read that they were agreeing to provide 570 data points on themselves and 570 data points of each of their friends. There was nothing illegal about the transaction for the individual who consented: the terms of agreement were spelled out in black and white for the few who cared to attempt to read the 'legalese.' Still in a rush to get to the quiz or game the app was providing, users skipped over reading the document and gave their data. The problem lay in the fact that they were also giving away their friends' data, friends who had not legally consented."
There's a victim-blamey tone here coming from someone who knows all too well the obfuscating language of terms of service, and it sidesteps the issue that it was Cambridge Analytica using this ethically suspect data. "It had never crossed my mind as something malevolent," she later writes about Cambridge Analytica's techniques. "I had seen it as savvy." It's unclear where on that spectrum she sees the company today.
Kaiser's and Wylie's books do have one thing in common, and that's the presence of their boss Alexander Nix. I'd mentioned in my review of Wylie's book that we might not even be reading it — or know much of anything about Cambridge Analytica — had Nix been nicer to Wylie or, at least, not outright abusive. And the same is true of Kaiser's book. I get the feeling that if, as she suggests, Nix hadn't loved shorting her on her earned commissions, or hadn't undermined her confidence every step of the way, there would be even less of a chance she would have gone public.
Which brings us to the bigger question of why she went public at all. In the supposed redemptive passages of the book, she tries to be seen as a certain type of whistleblower (she mentions the name Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, a lot in this section). And yet, even by her own account, she didn't choose to come public until after the first wave of Cambridge Analytica stories were published, and her name was already out there in the press. And for as much as she criticizes Facebook, in the book she mentions she was in talks with them to join their cryptocurrency team.
Kaiser is something of an advocate for data and privacy rights these days. But if that's to be her legacy over her work with Cambridge Analytica, it's going to take a lot more than this book to get there.