The murky world of ‘fake news’ and ‘conflict of interest’ have come up repeatedly as transition talks enter a new stage.
Foes of the regime in Russia, and Vladimir Putin, will be heartened to hear that the billionaire Peter Thiel is making some excellent anti-Russian moves on Trump’s transition team.
Techcrunch announced that Thiel is seeking executives from Palantir, his data monitoring company, to move onto Trump’s transition team:
Little wonder then that Thiel is reportedly pulling one principal at Founders Fund – Trae Stephens – into President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, which Thiel himself officially joined two weeks ago. According to Bloomberg, Stephens, who isn’t expected to take a role in the administration, will help shape defense and vet Defense Department staff.
Trae Stephens was an engineer at Palantir for over five years. Palantir has numerous clients in the U.S. intelligence community. The fact that Thiel would bring Stephens in to vet Defense Department staff is pretty awesome (and probably bad news down the road for Trump’s proposed National Security Advisor, General Flynn).
Thiel may also play an unheralded role in cleaning up the “emoluments” creating issues for Trump as he prepares to takes the oath of office, and, with Thiel’s other hat on, to protect Facebook, where he is a Board Member, from drowning in fake news and aggressive targeting using improper data stealing.
Aside from his inspirational speech at the Republican convention, where Thiel was widely lauded as one of the best on offer, he has been seen as one of Trump’s most important backers, partly because Mr. Thiel also sits on the board of Facebook, which has rightly resisted efforts to punish him for his politics.
However, as an entrepreneur and coder, Thiel is well aware of conflict of interest laws – and as a Facebook board member will be well aware of the damage done to Facebook in the ‘fake news’ controversy.
He has a great opportunity to clean up inside the transition team by stepping on Steve Bannon’s apparently enormous conflict of interest with Cambridge Analytica, the data and polling firm run by the billionaire Mercers.
Most coverage has focused on Mr. Bannon’s involvement with Breitbart News, and his deep links to the alt-right movement.
However, Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg may take much more exception to the work of Cambridge Analytica, the data company firm in which the Mercers have a stake.
That firm reportedly used Facebook to target its users with psychological messaging and profiles without their consent. Reportedly, Steve Bannon is on the board of the company:
Additionally, sources familiar with [Cambridge Analytica] said that its board includes Trump campaign chief executive Steve Bannon, whose addition to the campaign was encouraged by Bekah Mercer.
Campaign sources say Bannon is participating in the debate preparation sessions, as is campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, another Mercer ally whose hiring Bekah Mercer encouraged.
Despite this glaring conflict, Cambridge Analytica is apparently in talks to win White House contracts according to the Guardian — which reports Steve Bannon is involved both as representing President-Elect Trump and on behalf of the company on whose board he sits.
A data mining company that helped Donald Trump win the presidency is in early talks to snare two potentially lucrative new contracts, one to boost the incoming Trump White House’s policy messaging and the other to help the Trump Organization expand its sales, the Guardian has learned.
This appears to create a heinous conflict of interest, something Peter Thiel and Palantir can now point out.
Mr. Thiel will also, with his Facebook Board hat on, want to ensure that Cambridge Analytica has no conflict with his Trump Transition Team role. Cambridge Analytica, according to the Guardian, uses Facebook profile data without the permission or knowledge of Facebook users to build its profiles and targeting. Reporting on CA’s role in Cruz’s campaign, the Guardian stated:
Documents seen by the Guardian have uncovered longstanding ethical and privacy issues about the way academics hoovered up personal data by accessing a vast set of US Facebook profiles, in order to build sophisticated models of users’ personalities without their knowledge.
Clearly this would be anathema to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s board. Thiel will be able to ensure Facebook both stays clean of any involvement with Bannon, and blocks Cambridge Analytica from improper use of user data.
He will also want to tell Mr. Trump that Cambridge Analytica cannot be competing for White House contracts while Mr. Bannon is both on its board and in the White House Team — and reportedly involved in talks.
In March, Facebook said they were investigating Cambridge Analytica and might require them to turn all their data back over to the social network:
Facebook said the company was “carefully investigating this situation” regarding the Cruz campaign.
“[M]isleading people or misusing their information is a direct violation of our policies and we will take swift action against companies that do, including banning those companies from Facebook and requiring them to destroy all improperly collected data,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement to the Guardian.
Furthermore Cambridge Analytica appears to have acquired data in ways that might not even be legal in the EU, making them an ostensibly unethical choice for White House contracts – something Thiel could ask Attorney-General nominee Jeff Sessions to wade in on. Sessions will, no doubt, be asked in his confirmation hearings what he has done to prevent Emoluments Clause violations and corruption and graft in the Transition.
Bloomberg reports of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting:
. Since their MyPersonality app was launched in 2007, six million people have completed the questionnaire—nearly half of them allowing Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre to access their Facebook profiles as they did so. Once a user grants such access, algorithms trawl through likes and posts to train statistical models that use such “digital footprints” to predict personality types.
To be clear, the reported suggestion here is that although Facebook and its users allowed personality profiles to be trawled for academic research purposes, the Cambridge Analytica parent company took that data and used it commercially for their political site. They also reportedly crawled into the profiles of friends of users who took their quizzes and paid surveys – without any permission at all.
Kogan established his own company in spring that year and began working with SCL to deliver a “large research project” in the US. His stated aim was to get as close to every US Facebook user into the dataset as possible.
The academic used Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to access a large pool of Facebook profiles, hoovering up tens of thousands of individuals’ demographic data – names, locations, birthdays, genders – as well as their Facebook “likes”, which offer a range of personal insights.
This was achieved by recruiting MTurk users by paying them about one dollar to take a personality questionnaire that gave access to their Facebook profiles. This raised the alarm among some participants, who flagged Kogan for violating MTurk’s terms of service. “They want you to log into Facebook and then download a bunch of your information,” complained one user at the time.
Crucially, Kogan also captured the same data for each person’s unwitting friends. For every individual recruited on MTurk, he harvested information about their friends, meaning the dataset ballooned significantly in size. Research shows that in 2014, Facebook users had an average of around 340 friends.
Not only was that apparently unethical, but the data from the “large research project” was used commercially by the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, suggested the Guardian, meaning, if this report is correct, that the permissions were given under false pretenses.
Kogan assured the MTurk users their Facebook data would “only be used for research purposes” and remain “anonymous and safe”.
However, the Facebook data was then used to generate sophisticated models of each of their personalities…
By summer 2014, Kogan’s company had created an expansive and powerful dataset. His business partner boasted on LinkedIn that their private outfit, Global Science Research (GSR), “owns a massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States – for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles”.
Documents show SCL [the parent company of Cambridge Analytica] agreed to a contract with GSR, whereby it would pay its data collection costs in order to improve “match rates” against SCL’s existing datasets or to enhance GSR’s algorithm’s “national capacity to profile capacity of American citizens”.
In an email, Kogan said he was unable to explain in detail where all the data came from, as he was restricted by various confidentiality agreements. He said SCL is no longer a client.
Cambridge’s Analytica’s Cruz Crew app applied similar mining techniques according to the AP:
The Cruz app prompts supporters to register using their Facebook logins, giving the campaign access to personal information such as name, age range, gender, location and photograph, plus lists of friends and relatives…. The Cruz app separately urges users to let it download their phone contacts, giving the campaign a trove of phone numbers and personal email addresses. The campaign says that by using its app, “You hereby give your express consent to access your contact list” ….Cruz’s campaign combines the information with data from a group called Cambridge Analytica, which has been involved in his efforts since fall 2014.
If Cambridge Analytica techniques were found to have been targeted on Facebook at users after their data was appropriated, and particularly if any fake news stories, fake Facebook pages, and fake profiles were set up using Cambridge Analytica techniques, it would represent a huge ethical conflict for Thiel, and there is every reason to believe that he will not allow either the data mining company or Steve Bannon to place conflicts of interest against his dual roles in the transition and with Facebook’s Board.
In the meantime Thiel’s recruitment of a Palantir engineer is a superb sign that the war on the American psyche will no longer be able to used by Russia under a Donald Trump Presidency. With Peter Thiel, and Palantir, the data patriots are now running the show – and Facebook will not be able to be a tool of Russian intel against the USA.