Sunday, March 18, 2018

Was Lukoil just asking for a friend?

Lukoil station in New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, this (from Danny Hakim and Matthew Rosenberg at the Times) is sort of interesting:

When the Russia question came up during a hearing at the British Parliament last month, Alexander Nix did not hesitate.
“We’ve never worked in Russia,” said Mr. Nix, head of a data consulting firm that advised the Trump campaign on targeting voters.
“As far as I’m aware, we’ve never worked for a Russian company,” Mr. Nix added. “We’ve never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other country, and we don’t have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals.”
Only Nix's interrelated companies, the UK SLC Group and US Cambridge Analytica, the Robert Mercer–created "psychographic profiling" firm hired by Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner to create the in-depth picture of how Trump's message resonated around the country that dictated the candidate's travel scale in 2016, did claim that they worked in Russia in some of their promotional material (SLC says one employee did "commercial work" for a "private company" in Russia 25 years ago, but the brochure suggests that SLC has clients on its active list with the firm's elections division), and then apparently they had at least three meetings in 2014 and 2015 with executives from the privately owned but deeply government-connected Lukoil oil export firm, discussing some possible work that never got going.


(Trump's always planning Russia projects that never get going too, it's like a Russia thing, as if they just love taking meetings—they're corporate cockteasers. Or maybe meetings that never get anywhere make great cover for meetings that accomplish something you'd like to keep quiet, because if nothing happened, you don't expect much of a paper trail. Cf. Junior, Veselnitskaya, and multiple associates in Trump Tower, June 2016.)

It doesn't sound crazy to me that Lukoil should take an interest in the kind of work Cambridge Analytica can do, because they own a lot of gas stations in the US, and the fact that they're a Russian company, like the fact that Citgo is a Venezuelan company, might or might not have a dampening effect on their sales, and it would make business sense for them to get a pretty granular sense of how the consumers feel in different places, which the company is apparently very well equipped to do. But that doesn't seem to be what they were looking for at all:

Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge Analytica and develop the company’s voter-profiling technology, said Lukoil showed interest in how the company used data to tailor messaging to American voters.
“I remember being super confused,” said Mr. Wylie, who took part in one of the Lukoil meetings.
“I kept asking Alexander, ‘Can you explain to me what they want?’” he said, referring to Mr. Nix. “I don’t understand why Lukoil wants to know about political targeting in America.”
“We’re sending them stuff about political targeting — they then come and ask more about political targeting,” Mr. Wylie said, adding that Lukoil “just didn’t seem to be interested” in how the techniques could be used commercially.
Or were they asking for a friend?

This combined with the news in yesterday's Guardian of how Cambridge Analytica obtained some 50 million Facebook profiles under false pretenses—a scholar at the University of Cambridge with, coincidentally or not, a Russian name, Aleksandr Kogan, obtained the data from some hundreds of thousands of FB users through his "thisisyourdigitallife" app and all of their friends, for ostensible research purposes, but Mercer's company seems to have used them commercially in their work for the Trump campaign. Wylie again:
Christopher Wylie, who worked with [Kogan] to obtain the data, told the Observer: “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”
Documents seen by the Observer, and confirmed by a Facebook statement, show that by late 2015 the company had found out that information had been harvested on an unprecedented scale. However, at the time it failed to alert users and took only limited steps to recover and secure the private information of more than 50 million individuals....
Facebook’s “platform policy” allowed only collection of friends’ data to improve user experience in the app and barred it being sold on or used for advertising. The discovery of the unprecedented data harvesting, and the use to which it was put, raises urgent new questions about Facebook’s role in targeting voters in the US presidential election. It comes only weeks after indictments of 13 Russians by the special counsel Robert Mueller which stated they had used the platform to perpetrate “information warfare” against the US.
Facebook's own conduct in this looks awfully skeezy: they seem to have known about the data breach more than two years ago and made no serious effort to get the data deleted, and joined Nix in lying to the UK parliamentary committee as to whether CA had or used Facebook data, but they have, at long last, suspended CA from the platform, so you could say they've done more to stop meddling in US elections in 2018 than the Trump administration has.

And then the news, also in the Guardian, that the firm totally and willfully ignored that it is illegal for foreign nationals, including Nix, the British CEO, to work in US election campaigns, in 2014 and 2016 both. Nix himself should have removed himself from the project, and the work should have been carried out strictly by US citizens and green card holders:
“Mercer’s lawyer told a fairly stunned group meeting that it wasn’t allowed,” said one non-American employee who was based in the US at the time. “I’m not sure what, if anything, CA did to act on that knowledge.”
Two employees confirmed that they were still answering ultimately to Nix throughout the mid-term election campaigns that ended in November 2014. In total, more than a dozen foreigners, including Britons and Canadians, filled strategic roles in campaigns across the US....
It is understood that some were working on tourist visas. Another ex-employee claimed that they had been provided with letters to give to US border control officials where needed, stating that they would not be working there.
It's not obvious that these fancy microtargeting techniques really work, but the amount of sheer criminality in this organization, from lying to Parliament to hiring illegal aliens, is pretty extraordinary.

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